Notes from a Biennial - On Presence

by Guy Mannes-Abbott

Rosalind Nashashibi Shelter for a New Youth [Interior Ph. GM-A]

Presence is another continuous element here. I’m taking presence to mean that which is generated by the absence of elements visual or otherwise, or as work that ‘plays’ with the presence of absence.

I’m thinking of works by Rosalind Nashashibi, Hans Haacke, Emily Jacir, as well as by Rosalind Nashashibi or Shohreh Mehran, Trisha Donnelly, even Khalil Rabah and Walid Raad in some ways. Presence here is suggested or generated by a range of absences such that each is enlivened as a result.

Nashashibi has installed a small hut known as an areesh inside another walled courtyard. Inside are some severely pruned trees, upon which she has mounted photographs of male crotches set at angles to each other. On the wall is a representation of Mickey Mouse hands referencing the hand poses of the Buddha. There are plastic chairs within and without the hut, the intention being to make this a place of temporary shelter like the thing it references in actuality.

The artist was delighted to have found people sitting inside her installation on one visit, and must have enjoyed the way that also stirs the purpose of it in other ways. It’s called ‘Shelter for a New Youth’ and you don't have to be familiar with cruising/cottaging or male pick up places or indeed her catalogue text to realise quite quickly what is being created here. A making explicit, an advocacy of coming freedoms, in every sense a work of generative profanation.

Trisha Donnelly’s apparently untitled work won a prize deservedly for best installed environment. She’s sowed grass, presumably transplanted the trees, stacked up tree stumps in a corner and placed a pink marble sculpture in such a way as to undermine any certainty that these are interventions in a space or merely existing dereliction. The give away is a wall of sound effect that fills the space with presence, including a sense of foreboding or post-traumatic loss.

Hans Haacke is showing ‘Caligraphie’, which remains an unmade piece of work. Here are the visual and textual proposals for a piece that he originally entered for a competition in 1989 to honour the Lower House of the French Parliament. He told me that it was originally intended for a specific time and place in France, but that much of what that purpose was remains live now, in the context perhaps of the implementation of a French law targeting Muslims who are now forbidden to wear head scarves in public.

Of course this is a biopolitics at work, but it’s also simply and sharply racist in a country with a terrible record of violent racism. Haacke’s idea was to render the French threesome of Liberty, Equality and Freedom in Arabic, such that water would run over them and through a broken pool to feed a grass representation of the map of France. The photographs render the idea as a model, blown up to a size that makes it seem crude. This and the way in which a non-existing work is made present here makes for a pleasing encounter even if some of the sharpness of the original intention is softened at this remove.

A complex restoring of presence is at work in Emily Jacir’s previously shown work; Lydda Airport, a short animated film in which she plays the character of a man [Salim Tamari’s father, in fact] sent to greet Amelia Earhart at the airport in the 1930s. He waited and waited for a plane that never arrived. This assured piece of work also features a passenger plane that disappeared en route to Sharjah a few years later, evoking, as she says in the catalogue, promises lost as well as moments of possibility. Within the installation is also a room containing a model of Lydda’s airport, with no explicit reference to another form of absence that everyone should bring to the piece.

That is; Lydda was one of the hundreds of towns and villages ethnically cleansed during the 1948 nakba in the establishing of the state of Israel, a significant proportion of its population driven in to the hills where they've survived ever since in UN refugee camps. In the film Jacir is the only one actually present even while a plane comes and goes. It's eery and elegant, a crisply effective piece of work which does in its way repopulate the imagination with presence.

Work by Iranian artists here is notably strong and tends towards visual fullness. An exception are the paintings by Shohreh Mehran of young women walking with their backs to the viewer, or with heads averted, faces blocked. More recent images made after the uprising during last year's fake election in Iran are wearier; men actively avert their eyes, block their faces, and all are washed out. It’s as if this form of saying no is all they are able to do in a context of state terror.

Exemplifying the busier end of this spectrum of presence are the brothers Rokni and Ramin Haerizadeh. Both are showing intriguing works, but I slightly prefer those by Ramin [Please Beware of this Artist 2010] which are installed in the last of the box-galleries in Bait al Serkal. A strange neon-light cage-sculpture sits in the centre of the room, partly lighting up the walls which bear large montaged self-portraits, limbs, flesh and beards akimbo and intermingled against farsi script ‘wallpaper’. Stickers scatter the picture surface reading; Please Be Aware This Image Contains Nudity. It’s probably worth noting that his work was censored in Dubai during the much more corporate Art Fair this week.

Some productive knotting of absence and presence runs through the major installations by Raad and Rabah too, as different as each work is from the other. Raad’s piece is from a larger project called ‘Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: A History of Art in the Arab World’ which is sufficiently indicative of the sophistications at work.

Rabah’s is another complex recovery and rejection of official state culture, in this case a currently potential state of Palestine. The paintings were done by 25 Chinese craftsmen so Rabah is peculiarly absent from them, even though at least one is a reproduction of a press image of a previous exhibition in his own Museum series.

Both are potent, but the latter’s strength is the brutal context it faces you with, making it unavoidable, unsurmountable, ultimately undigestible.


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