Showing, Saying, Whistling: On Lorna Simpson and Ahlam Shibli | The Nation


Showing, Saying, Whistling: On Lorna Simpson and Ahlam Shibli

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The old saw that a picture is worth a thousand words may still be true, but it always takes at least a few words to unlock the meaning, to let the picture tell its story. And a different word will make for a different story, a divergent meaning. Artists have been worrying for a long time about the peculiar relationship between pictures and their captions, between showing and saying, and because the relationship is always in flux, the worrying isn’t likely to stop.

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Barry Schwabsky
Barry Schwabsky is the art critic of The Nation. Schwabsky has been writing about art for the magazine since 2005, and...

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The American artist Lorna Simpson has been exploring this quandary since the beginning of her career, and an early piece like Twenty Questions (A Sampler), from 1986, is typical. Four seemingly identical black-and-white photographs—tondos rather than rectangles—show the back of the head of a young black woman who is wearing a simple white sleeveless outfit against a black background. It is often assumed that the face turned away from the viewer is Simpson’s. It is not. But this may be one of those instances where misidentification—an explicit concern of her work—carries its own kind of truth. If artists like Cindy Sherman can use themselves as models in order to represent other people, who can say for sure that using other people as models is not a way of representing oneself? At the Jeu de Paume in Paris, France’s national gallery of photography and media art, where Simpson’s work is on view through September 1, the title of Twenty Questions (A Sampler) is displayed on a white-on-black plaque—the kind you can have made in a hardware store to mount on a door, for instance—on the wall above the photographs. Lined up underneath the four images are five more plaques: is she pretty as a picture / or clear as crystal / or pure as a lily / or black as coal / or sharp as a razor. The words are big enough to be viewed at a distance.

Twenty Questions (A Sampler) isn’t simply a set of black-and-white photographs. It is, so to speak, emphatically black and white, using photography not only to evoke issues of race but also to explore the relationship between the black and white of the image and that of the text. The words are what’s “seen” and the image what’s “read”; as Simpson once said of the figure in another of her works from the same year, Waterbearer: ”I wanted people to see that woman as she sees herself, which is to say, as herself, declarative.” In other words, in the form of a statement, a sentence.

The same image can be interpreted through any number of similes, but the fact that there are five captions for four photographs graphically underscores the lack of a snug fit between text and image. The numerical mismatch between images and captions is a recurring device with Simpson. In a piece from 1988, Five Day Forecast, there are five black-and-white images, of presumably the same black woman wearing presumably the same white shift, standing, arms crossed, against a white background. This time she is shown from the front, but only from the neck to the hips. Above each of the five photographs (more or less where the face would be, as if, instead of making identity declarative, the artist is showing how the declarative can take the place of personal identity), a plaque names one of the five days of the workweek. Below the images are ten more plaques, bearing the words misdescription / misinformation / misidentify / misdiagnose / misfunction / mistranscribe /misremember / misgauge / misconstrue / mistranslate. Five images might only be one image, but they can generate at least twice as many forms of misrepresentation. A good warning for art critics, that—and for anyone else who thinks it’s easy to put words to what one sees.

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Simpson is the quintessential studio photographer, an artist who constructs the situations she pictures in order to convey no more information than what she intends the viewer to perceive. Ahlam Shibli, a Palestinian photographer whose exhibition “Phantom Home” is being shown at the Jeu de Paume concurrently with Simpson’s, is something else altogether: a documentarian, the kind of photographer who goes out into the world to find her subjects and therefore starts with the superabundance of things as they are. Her show brims with a visual messiness and pictorial complexity that testify to the messiness and complexity of the world itself. Like Simpson, Shibli regards the words she attaches to her images as integral to her work. But whereas Simpson sometimes uses words as graphic elements whose visual impact is concomitant with that of her images, Shibli’s are more conventionally presented on small labels adjacent to the photographs; you have to move in close to find out what the pictures are “of” and then step back again to take in the pictures themselves. Reading and looking are two separate activities; they cannot be done simultaneously.

But that doesn’t mean the words are less significant than the images. A prominent sign in French and English advises viewers that, regarding the largest series on view, Death (2011–12), “All of the photographs in this series are accompanied by captions written by the artist that are inseparable from the images.” If the management of the Jeu de Paume had hoped that the notice would be sufficient to inoculate Shibli’s work from any of the ten varieties of misrepresentation identified in Simpson’s Five Day Forecast, it must have been quickly disabused of that notion. Although Death, along with the rest of “Phantom Home,” had already been presented without incident at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA), in Paris it generated a storm of protest. The umbrella group for French Jewish organizations, CRIF (Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France), denounced it as “an apology for terrorism,” while an Italian writer on a website identified with the Israeli settler movement called for vandalism against the museum, saying: “We must leave this deadly show in the heart of Paris in ruins.” As for me, even before seeing the show, having heard that protesters were calling for it to be closed down, I had signed a petition opposing any attempt to censor it and defending “the right to free artistic expression and debate…through dialogue and the exchanging of experiences.” A notice posted at the museum, added in response to the controversy, specifies that Shibli’s work is “neither propaganda nor an apology for terrorism” and goes on to quote the artist: “I am not a militant. My work is to show, not to pronounce or judge.”

Death is a series of images about images. It is an almost anthropological investigation of how the pictures of those who are deemed “martyrs”—that is, anyone whose death was a result of the Israeli occupation, including suicide bombers, but also those killed in Israeli attacks, who might have been fighters or bystanders—are deployed in public and at home in the Nablus area (the site of several refugee camps including Balata, the largest in the West Bank). While I am sympathetic to Shibli’s desire to let her perceptions speak for themselves without editorializing, what’s clear from these photographs is that, at least in the fraught context of the cult of martyrdom, the distinction between what it is “to show” and “to pronounce,” between image and discourse, is both thin and unstable. 

The images of the dead in the show do not speak for themselves; they are accompanied by innumerable words, the meaning of most of which can only be imagined by those of us who don’t read Arabic, because the artist’s captions generally don’t translate them. Presumably those that are translated can stand for the rest: “Many carry a weapon, but few bring it to the chest of the enemy,” or “Be generous, Brigades, with the blood and bring light to the earth with your martyr heroism.” In fact, it is not necessary to translate the bellicose lyricism of these texts, because the images themselves—idealized, sanctified—are imbued with it. The pictures within Shibli’s pictures are accompanied by pronouncements, but they are already declarations of a sort themselves: they are rhetorical images meant to promote a cult of martyrdom. As the art historian T.J. Demos writes in the exhibition catalog, they amount to an “aestheticization of death.”

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