“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.