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

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

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

Two photographers focus on the difficulties of putting words to what one sees.


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.

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.

* * *

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.”

* * *

When images are declarations, is it possible to make images of them without at least implicitly offering a judgment of one’s own? Probably not, but even still, to identify the gist of a judgment may not be easy, and all the less so if the judgment is complex and nuanced or even just ambivalent. Knowing of the endless suffering and the thousands of deaths caused by the Israeli occupation since the second intifada began in 2000, it is impossible not to sympathize with the Palestinians’ effort “to make this daily dose of death not only meaningful but absolutely inevitable,” in the words of the poet and novelist Mahmoud Abu Hashhash, as quoted by Demos. The fervor invested in memorialization is its own justification. Yet it is just as difficult not to regard this “aestheticization of death” as a despairing, nihilistic turn in the culture that supports it, an implicit acknowledgment that despite the calls for victory over the oppressor surrounding these images, victory seems out of reach and self-sacrifice has become an end in itself. What those who decry Shibli’s photographs want to censor is not, I suspect, the images within her images, the ones that glorify suicide bombers, but the way her images show the dispiriting effect of Israeli policy on everyday life in Palestine.

In Shibli’s captions, there is no overt evaluation of the cult of martyrdom. The text explains the content of the images entirely from the point of view of the people whose streets, homes and belongings are pictured. (Only sometimes are the people themselves shown.) Here’s one caption:

The guest room of the family of Osama Bushkar with his brother and his nephew. Bushkar carried out a martyrdom operation on May 19, 2002 in Natanya. He approached different resistance organizations, which refused to equip him for the operation because he was too young. Finally the Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades accepted him. His body is still in the hands of the Israeli authorities. The army destroyed his family’s house as punishment.

The use of the bureaucratic euphemism “martyrdom operation” is striking, in part because of the implication that the ultimate purpose of the operation is martyrdom rather than any particular victory over the oppressor; of course, one imagines that the Israeli authorities must have a whole litany of equivalent bureaucratic phrases to normalize for themselves the practice of bulldozing the houses of people who have committed no crime, just as the United States conceals the practice of delivering kidnapped terrorism suspects to their torturers under the anodyne rubric of “extraordinary rendition.” But far from promoting terrorism, these photographs amount to a clear-eyed look at a society in which death has become a worthy goal now that the enjoyment of life in freedom is unattainable.

Despite Shibli’s seeming refusal to take a critical stance toward the representation of “martyrs”—unlike her, I can’t use the word without scare quotes because its politico-religious ethos is alien to me—it is not the case that by re-representing this imagery, she is merely repeating its message and thereby endorsing terrorism. As a resident of the Israeli city of Haifa who has exhibited her work widely throughout the Zionist state, Shibli must know that she is just as likely to be a victim of a “martyrdom operation” as any Jewish citizen of Israel. But her support for resistance to the occupation is equally apparent, as is her endeavor to plumb as deeply as possible its effects on her people. 

Rhetorical images like the ones that promote the cult of martyrdom are discursive in a particular way: they tell the viewer what to think and how to feel about what is seen. By placing them in a complex, contradictory frame, Shibli makes images that are discursive in a different way: they ask viewers to question their presuppositions, to compare their interpretations with other possible ones. These images might be called dialectical rather than rhetorical. They are anti-iconic images, and the meaning of each one arises only in relation to others in the series. There are no “decisive moments,” simply moments of stasis or transition. And there are no strikingly beautiful or iconic images either; the aesthetic satisfaction of Shibli’s work is contained not in the individual frame, but in the multiplicity of linkages between them.

At times, in fact, she is dialectical to a fault, as in her series Trauma (2008–09), made in the town of Tulle in central France. The initial inspiration for this work was Shibli’s scrutiny of the commemorations of the French resistance to German occupation during World War II. After the killing of German soldiers by Resistance fighters in June 1944, nearly a hundred male citizens of Tulle were hanged; others were sent to German concentration camps, where many of them died. Just as the Palestinians of Nablus honor their martyrs whatever the cause of death, Shibli noticed that the French commemorated the soldiers who died in Algeria and Indochina—those who fought against the efforts of others to free their countries from colonial rule—along with those who died to liberate France. Irony of this sort is hardly news; anyone who’s seen Gillo Pontecorvo’s great film The Battle of Algiers (1966) remembers the figure of Colonel Mathieu, the former Resistance fighter who encourages his men to use torture in their struggle against the Algerian rebels. But in Trauma, Shibli tries to compass too many elements: the images range, as she says, across such diverse characters as “former members of the Résistance, descendents of the hanged and deported from June 9, former French fighters in the colonial wars, Pieds-Noirs, as well as an Algerian collaborator, a man who was taken to France as a forced laborer from Indochina, a second generation Indochinese, a lady of Algerian descent who considers herself French, and recent immigrants from Algeria.” As a result, the thread of the implicit discourse—which concerns the hard-to-identify, easily crossed boundaries between liberator and oppressor, rebel and collaborator—gets lost in a tangle of unrelated details.

* * *

Images convey their stories—and, sometimes, fail to convey them—through both the webs of words woven around them and their own capacity to be formed and deployed in wordlike ways. And while every discourse eventually reaches a limit, there remains something beyond words. “What can be shown cannot be said,” Wittgenstein famously declared. But what can neither be shown nor said can still be conveyed otherwise, such as through music. Simpson seems to be just as sensitive to the potential of music as an accompaniment to images as she is of words. In her new three-channel video installation, Chess (2013), Simpson herself appears as the two players, male and female, in the game of kings. The accompanying soundtrack is by the pianist Jason Moran; and just as Simpson, in her earlier photo works, treated the text as visually equal to the images, here she has treated the image of Moran making his music as the equal of her fictional chess game. In fact, Moran playing the piano is of far greater visual interest—and so, intentionally or not, the ostensible accompaniment becomes the main act.

“What we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence,” Wittgenstein concluded—to which his friend Frank Ramsey added, “And you can’t whistle it either.” I wonder why these philosophers were so unmusical. In an earlier video piece, Cloudscape (2004), Simpson more concisely evokes what can neither be shown nor said. The setup is simplicity itself: an empty, stagelike space on which a man stands, whistling. The tune sounds familiar, like a hymn. He faces upward, but unseeingly: his eyes are closed. What is in the mind’s eye of this man looking upward with closed eyes? Is he one of those of whom Zora Neale Hurston once said, “Their eyes were watching God”? Perhaps, but the comfort to be drawn from a whistled hymn is not necessarily religious. Meanwhile, as the camera gradually closes in on the whistler, the space slowly fills with fog. The beautifully lit black-and-white scene is redolent of the Depression-era romanticism of a film director like Frank Borzage. When the whistler is almost obscured by fog, the footage reverses itself and the cloudscape drifts away. In this whistling of a “melancholic, ascetic, dreamy sort” (to borrow Kafka’s description in “Josephine the Singer”), there is some mysterious surplus meaning whose very indefinability may be synonymous with art.

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