Under Pressure

Under Pressure

How much of the pressure of reality can a work of art bear before it ceases to be art?


“In the presence of the violent reality of war,” wrote Wallace Stevens in 1942, “consciousness takes the place of the imagination.” What the poet meant is that in wartime, “everything moves in the direction of reality, that is to say, in the direction of fact,” so that “we leave fact and come back to it, come back to what we wanted fact to be, not to what it was, not to what it has too often remained.” But this pressure toward fact and the desire to change, to remake the facts, become “overwhelming.”

It was difficult to look at “Here and Elsewhere,” the capacious exhibition of “contemporary art from and about the Arab world” (to quote from the press release), without sensing this overwhelming pressure toward fact. In part, this was a matter of timing. My first visit to the show, on view at the New Museum in New York City through September 28, took place the day after it opened on July 16, and just after Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, the attack on Gaza that killed more than 2,000 people, most of them civilians and many of them children, and left many more homeless. To encounter so much art so deeply marked by the fact of violence was hard to bear. My attention was relentlessly drawn to works like those from Lamia Joreige’s Objects of War series, begun in 1999, in which videos of people being interviewed about objects that evoke memories of the wars that ravaged Lebanon in the 1970s and ’80s are juxtaposed with the objects themselves. There was also Khaled Jarrar’s 2012 feature-length video Infiltrators, which follows the agonizing efforts of Palestinians to breach the wall separating Israel from the Occupied Territories—not to commit acts of terrorism, but mainly for economic and personal reasons. These works exhibit varying traits of formalization and fictiveness. The subjects of Joreige’s videos, for instance, speak with a clarity and self-assurance that would be unlikely in spontaneous conversation; their responses have clearly been well prepared in advance. But nevertheless, per Stevens, “everything moves in the direction of reality, that is to say, in the direction of fact.”

During a second visit to the museum in August, I could look and think with greater equanimity, even though the war in Gaza was still in full swing. I was better able to attend to the few works whose subjects are further removed from the facts of conflict—Etel Adnan’s brilliantly chromatic paintings of Mount Tamalpais in California, for instance, or Susan Hefuna’s drawings, with their abstract mapping of urban space—and to appreciate the efforts of others to find an adequate form for their facts. But my third visit was more like the first: I went on the thirteenth anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, a breach in the seemingly smooth flow of history and one whose consequences we are still living. It became impossible to ignore that this exhibition may also be among those consequences (and among the few that are hopeful). There is good reason to think that my second, relatively “autonomous” experience of “Here and Elsewhere”—dominated as it was by a sense of what Stevens would have called the activity of the imagination in art, rather than of consciousness—would be the best opportunity for understanding it. How long or how consistently that stance can be maintained in a historical situation as dire as the one in which we now find ourselves—and by “we,” I mean the inhabitants of both the so-called West and its complementary East—is a contingent matter, however. Stevens could finally not articulate any clear distinction between an art of imagination and one of consciousness, because even the former “constantly illuminates the fundamental and endless struggle with fact,” while the reality that orients consciousness is always the one that does not yet exist, but should. There is an indelible encounter with a possibly unspeakable reality, but this encounter becomes the seed for an unforeseeable elaboration.

* * *

The London-based Syrian photographer Hrair Sarkissian was represented in “Here and Elsewhere” by images from his 2008 series Execution Squares, and his account of the motivations behind the piece sounds like the opening lines of a great novel: “It all started when I crossed eyes with three people, already dead, who had been hanged in the middle of a square called Meysat, near my parents’ house. It was in the early light of day, and I was on my way to school. I was twelve years old, and sitting on a school bus.” What the images offer is a common enough story about illusions and their collapse—the illusion being that a photograph can show the truth, that past events have been safely consigned to the past, that one can even distinguish between a place of execution and any other place in a situation whereby, as Sarkissian says, an “entire country has effectively been turned into a huge execution square, where people’s lives can end at any given moment, without notice or conviction.” The generic formal qualities of the images—their deliberate way of not “revealing” anything about the places they picture beyond what the title of the series invites the viewer to imagine about them—do, as an aesthetic, seem to collapse in the face of what has overtaken Syria in the intervening years. Yet Sarkissian’s determination to “live with the past in the present tense” has about it something heroic (as Stevens felt a poetry of consciousness would require), and one would have liked to be able to see a much greater range of his work, if only to learn if some of it more thoroughly fulfills its own ambitions than this series.

Sarkissian, like many of the other artists at the New Museum, is trying to see things in terms of the “longue durée,” as the Moroccan artist Bouchra Khalili says, borrowing the phrase from the French historian Fernand Braudel. As Wael Shawky, from Egypt, notes, “It’s much more beautiful to deal with a thousand-year-old history than to even begin to try and react to today,” even though the resulting work inevitably becomes a reflection on its own time.

The great problem with survey exhibitions of this kind is that they succeed just to the extent that they leave the viewer dissatisfied, wanting to see, know and understand more. Ideally, “Here and Elsewhere” should be nothing more than the introduction to a long-running series of exhibitions that would present work by some of the artists in much greater depth, not just so that they can be seen as examples of “artists who share roots in the Arab world,” but in fulfillment of the main desire of most artists: to see their work find “a place of its own, where it can be appreciated or dismissed for the issues it really tries to address.” The latter quote is from an e-mail that the outstanding Palestinian photographer Ahlam Shibli sent to the New Museum’s director of exhibitions, Massimiliano Gioni, explaining why she was declining to participate in “Here and Elsewhere.” Likewise, the Moroccan-born French artist Latifa Echakhch told Gioni: “I just want to be considered for my choices as an artist and not because of things I cannot choose, like my gender or origins.” It’s easy to understand why artists would be suspicious of any context or event that might appear to suggest “a denial of the work’s validity as an independent, formal proposition” (as Hassan Khan puts it in a text reprinted from Bidoun, the excellent New York–based English-language journal of Middle Eastern art that collaborated with the New Museum on the exhibition’s catalog). The Stevens of 1942 might have asked how much of the pressure of reality a work could bear before it ceases to be art. The artist’s heroism lies in allowing that pressure to expand rather than to crush what Stevens called “the scale of one’s thinking.”

* * *

And yet the show boasts works so complete in themselves that (for better or worse) they don’t seem to need any overt relation to an ongoing oeuvre to catch the imagination. Among them is Khalili’s video installation The Mapping Journey Project (2008–11). Each of the eight projected videos shows more or less the same thing: a map of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, on which a single hand draws with a marker. On the soundtracks (translated in subtitles), migrants narrate their undocumented journeys to and around Europe; the hands we see are theirs, marking out their routes as they go. Each story is distinct, and yet they are disturbingly similar: the endless search for a living is relentlessly frustrated; immense amounts of energy are spent on journeys to places where no jobs will be found. These ever-hopeful travelers wear themselves out crisscrossing the continent but often end up simply cooling their heels. We never see their faces, never learn their names, but their resourcefulness and perseverance cannot but arouse sympathy. If only they could spend half as much energy actually working as they have spent looking for work, they could be amazingly productive. If they would declare themselves artists and these prolific travels their works, they’d be invited to every biennial.

The minimalist aesthetic of this work (immobile camera, repetitive structure, reduction of the human presence to the hand and the off-screen voice) serves the purpose of shielding the speakers’ identities, but it also focuses the viewer’s attention. The small differences in the way each speaker gestures with his or her marker seem to encapsulate the emotional significance of their respective journeys. For instance, while most show their journeys by making a mark (a circle, check or whatever) at the starting point of each of its legs, then drawing a line to the next point of arrival where another mark is made, one man indicates his picaresque itinerary by first marking off his next goal, then going back to the place whence he came to draw the line connecting them.

Of course, whatever it is that one can deduce about a person’s character from the micromovements of his or her hand as it marks out a route on a map has nothing to do with the veracity of the narrative. Every immigrant, perhaps every traveler, is engaged in an act of self-reinvention. One of the most remarkable of self-inventors was a Turkish-born Armenian who, starting in the 1940s, began working as a studio photographer in Cairo under the name Van Leo. With his flair for dramatic lighting and glamorous poses, Van Leo became the preferred portraitist for the capital’s theater world as well as for other local and foreign notables. He also produced a large number of self-portraits in which he transformed his identity by taking on various invented or borrowed personas—a sort of male Cindy Sherman avant la lettre. Before his death in 2002, he saw his reputation revived thanks in great part to his being championed by Akram Zaatari, a Lebanese photographer whose work is also included in “Here and Elsewhere.” Zaatari is a co-founder (along with Walid Raad, Fouad Elkoury and Samer Mohdad) of the Arab Image Foundation, whose task is “to collect, preserve and study photographs from the Middle East, North Africa and the Arab diaspora”—a great example of how artists worldwide have increasingly taken on the task of creating archives and rewriting history to rescue noncanonical figures from neglect. As Natalie Bell and Massimiliano Gioni write in the “Here and Elsewhere” catalog, “Many artists are not makers of images, they are keepers of images”—people concerned with preserving and handing on what might otherwise have been lost.

Another noncanonical figure of Van Leo’s generation is Suha Traboulsi, a Palestinian described as “a pioneering conceptual and performance artist” who, after earning a doctorate in philosophy at Heidelberg in 1954, began producing such controversial works that she was dubbed “the witch of contemporary art.” In “Here and Elsewhere,” however, she is represented by a group of very precise, very delicate drawings from the 1940s, geometrical abstractions that reflect the most radical tendencies of the time and anticipate the art of the 1960s. One would like to know much more about this remarkable artist, but a Google search turns up no further information.

The elegant, almost fetishistically cool and austere materiality of these works, so unusual for the 1940s, suggests that the drawings—and therefore the biography of the artist—are actually the work of Walid Raad, the New York–based Lebanese artist (born in the village of Chbanieh, where Traboulsi is said to live now) who is best known for the art produced under the aegis of the Atlas Group, an imaginary collective dedicated to the visual documentation of Lebanon’s violent history between the 1970s and ’90s. And the Atlas Group is not the only heteronym that Raad has used; I have also seen works allegedly by a Palestinian woman named Janah Hilwé—a generation younger than Traboulsi, but whose biography contains curious parallels with hers (such as having produced a series of works titled Antithesis in 1968–70 as well as a mail-art piece, Two Untitled Projects, in 1969). Just as Raad’s work as the Atlas Group evinces not only a sardonic and poignant view of his country’s past, but also a rarefied and deliciously tactile relation to the processes of printing and photomechanical reproduction—the consummate forger’s delight in the intricacies of his craft, as well as the ineradicable need to seed his work with clues that reveal himself as the artificer—so do the works here attributed to Traboulsi possess an ultra-refined sensuality that belies their apparently ascetic manner.

It seems, then, that contrary to Stevens, imagination is always ready to take the place of consciousness, even in a land that has repeatedly suffered the upheavals of war. Fact and fiction are equally aspects of whatever truth can be gleaned from the disorder that is life itself. All the problems of art—meaning everything that arouses our distrust, but also everything that challenges artists to keep trying, and art lovers to keep looking, listening, reading—stem from the fact that it is created partly from what is given, partly from what we can invent. It involves both external and internal necessities whose relation can never be fully resolved. In truth, what Echakhch called “my choices as an artist” are impossible to disentangle from everything she was not able to choose. In a world without misfortune, without necessities to resist, there would never have been a need for art.

If my first response to “Here and Elsewhere” was to feel overwhelmed by the scale of the misfortune out of which so much of the art in it had emerged, that was only preparatory to my larger realization of the scope and variety of formal invention that these artists have managed to wrest from the conditions they have faced. This art encompasses a maximum of both fact and fiction, of what Stevens called consciousness and imagination. The distinction between the two does not always fall where we think. Adnan’s paintings are resolutely—I would almost say defiantly—imbued with the intense subjectivity of her sense of color, its independence from the “facts” of the visible world, let alone the brutal relations among the humans who inhabit that world. Yet the mountain is more than just a motif through which to experiment with combinations of hues, as the square was for Josef Albers; it is an ineluctable fact to which Adnan returns as if by compulsion, and that is not without its own violence. But it’s a solitary fact. In contrast, “words are social by their essence,” Adnan says, and so, in her writing, war is confronted directly. A copy of her short novel Sitt Marie-Rose, from 1978, is among the “objects of war” she presents in Lamia Joreige’s video series. But Adnan encounters war with the same coloristic subjectivity as we find in the opening line of her book of poetry The Arab Apocalypse—”A yellow sun  A green sun  a yellow sun  A red sun  a blue sun”—and the violence becomes surreal and visionary. With a “hot,” expressionistic aesthetic quite distant from the cooler, more conceptual strategies that prevail in “Here and Elsewhere,” Adnan twists language into an Artaudian howl of pain that is as much fiction as fact.

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