‘Europa’, the first UK show to survey the career of Emily Jacir, opens with a photograph of Palestinian translator and scholar Wael Zuaiter. It shows his body awkwardly slumped on a street in Rome, following his assassination by Israeli Mossad agents in 1972. This is the distressing start to a sprawling research project into the life of Zuaiter, ‘Material for a Film’, which Jacir has been working on for over a decade. The materials, for an as-yet-unrealised film, make up the sort of idiosyncratic archive that can only come from a project that has become an obsession. It lingers over seemingly inconsequential details, and gets lost in the maze of human memory. We see a brief flash of Zuaiter in a scene from ‘The Pink Panther’, here stripped of the anonymity usually afforded to film extras. We also see loose pages from his copy of ‘The Divine Comedy’, folded and secreted in an envelope. One page would take him so long, we’re told, that carrying the entire book was unnecessary.
It’s these personal details – ones that would be of no interest to a police investigation – that prevent ‘Material for a Film’ from feeling like an evidence room. Instead Jacir shapes an emotional, and perhaps idealised, portrait of Zuaiter, made entirely from documents. While there’s no shortage of what could be considered evidence – one sheet of paper even lists the names of Zuaiter’s assassins – Jacir sketches a likeness rather than a legal case. The visitor is encouraged to spend time with the materials, in order to form their own conclusions on Zuaiter. As with most of Jacir’s work, the more we’re willing to put in, the more we’re likely to find in return.
A sense of the archive’s often-ambiguous connection to history can be felt throughout the show. ‘ex libris’ brings together enlarged reproductions of book colophons, covering the walls of the upstairs gallery. Taken from books categorised as “abandoned property” in the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem, they were once part of the Palestinian public collection. They are striking in their variety and they reveal as much in isolation as in a collection. Small bureaucratic details – handwritten inscriptions and ink stamps – reveal a turbulent past. One stamp declares the book to be the property of the ‘Government of Palestine’, while another reads ‘British Council Library’.
Jacir is Palestinian-born but also has claims to other places: she received her art education in the US, and has lived in Riyadh, Linz and Rome. It is perhaps inevitable, then, that much of the show also deals with issues of translation. ‘stazione’ is translation at its most literal: an unrealised plan to create Arabic signage for each vaporetto on Venice’s Grand Canal. The refusal of permission by the Venetian authorities is as much a part of the work as Jacir’s intended signage. ‘stazione’ points to Jacir’s desire to go beyond representation towards direct intervention. Her politics – antagonistic, disruptive, even humorous – vibrate throughout the show with a sense of urgency.