Subversion, review by Rowan Lear
All three floors of gallery space at Cornerhouse have been given over to a radical project that brings together a group of contemporary Arab artists. While marked by distinctive individual concerns, their work has much common ground: utilizing new media and video technologies, employing cultural stereotypes or staging invented narratives. Curated by Omar Kholeif, they present a refreshing take on the stereotyped and supposedly homogenous entity that we call ‘the Arab world’ as well as exposing the mechanics of distorted media representation.
Larissa Sansour is an artist who clearly diverges from the negative rhetoric associated with the subject of Palestine. She creates an alternate future for her native Palestine in her video A Space Exodus (2009) which pays tribute to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the short video, Sansour plays the role of the pioneering ‘Palestinaut’ landing on the moon and planting the Palestinian flag, proudly claiming land. Her newer work-in-progress Nation State (2012) continues these themes, re-imagining the state of Palestine as a skyscraper hotel in a series of digitally-manipulated photographs. From the lift we view the floor where the city of Jerusalem is housed; on another floor the artist waters an olive tree - both an important export and a powerful symbol for Palestine. The poignancy of Sansour’s work emits from the blending of fantasy and harsh reality, humour and despair, kitsch and sincerity, as she casts new light on a difficult and continuing crisis.
Using irony to poignant effect is also powerfully employed in the installation by Tarzan and Arab, twin brothers from Gaza, a city under siege where there are no functioning cinemas. In light of this, a replica cinema has been installed in Subversions, presenting us with Gazawood, an alternate reality where their hometown has a thriving film industry. In the cinema, a dramatic trailer plays for a Hollywood-style Palestinian action film Colourful Journey (2010) and exciting posters for other films adorn the walls. Of course this is all fiction, and the mythical films take their absurd titles from Israeli military campaigns. The resilience and imagination of the artists is pitched against the impossibilities faced by filmmakers in the face of the bleak situation in Gaza.
A similar borrowing of cultural motifs occurs when Sharif Waked exploits the syntax of the suicide bomber’s address in his video To be continued’ (2009) in which he takes on the role of the would-be bomber. He reads from a large book in a mesmerising tone - but never reaches the end of his delivery, forever delaying the moment when he switches off the camera and commits a deadly act. Drawing attention to the form of the video, and replacing the militant dialogue with the Arabic folktale One Thousand and One Nights, Waked displaces our comfortable interpretation of mediated events and lends the scene a different narrative.
The works of two Beirut-based artists Akram Zaatari and Marwa Arsanios seek to reveal and record the hidden histories of Lebanon’s gay men. Zaatari’s video Red Chewing Gum (2000) is a poetic tale of longing and separation as he recalls an erotic moment in a love letter to a distant partner, while in How I Love You (2001) he documents the voices and stories of five gay men living in Lebanon, where homosexual acts are considered illegal. Meanwhile Arsanios attempts to reconstruct a lost history of the Hotel Carlton in I’ve heard stories - part 1 (2008), a mixed media video combining animation and live action. The now demolished hotel was a popular meeting place for gay men and in its time, was host to three murders. The passionate nature of these crimes went unreported and it is this erasure from history that Arsanios seeks to address with a melodramatic reconstruction of the event, while recognising and playing upon the difficulty in reassembling fact from fiction.
There are also installations which demand participation, and thus collusion on the part of the viewer. Wafaa Bilal has hacked a computer game A Virtual Jihadi (2008) which is available to be played by visitors in a mock rundown internet café, which provides a fantastically grim setting. The game is mindlessly absorbing, and unsurprisingly, the strategy is to find soldiers and kill them. The game was originally an American production called The Quest for Saddam providing stereotypical Arab enemies, and was rewritten by Al Qaeda to pitch players against American soldiers in a version called Night of Bush Capturing. The experience of playing Bilal’s version demonstrates that games of this kind, no matter who is writing them, leave little space for moral choices and a deeper understanding of conflict, and instead perpetuate mindless violence and racist ideology.
In another participative work, Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige have created a huge jigsaw photograph of Beirut in Circle of Confusion (2012). The viewer is invited to jumble the pieces and contribute to the fragmentation and reorganisation of the city. Alternatively, the pieces can be put back in place, and the city repaired. The work articulates the troubled and divided history of Beirut and the processes of destruction and renewal common to all cities. Behind the jigsaw, the wall is mirrored, so that every piece moved confronts us with our reflection - and places significance on the actions and choices of the individual.
The artists in Subversion highlight our complicity with popular myths, and persistently disrupt and complicate the reading of their work. Overall, the effect is disconcerting and unsettling - in that it unsettles any rooted or unquestioned perception of Arab identity. While many of us recognise that that our view is partial, mediated and biased, there is rarely opportunity or desire to correct the cultural stereotypes. This exhibition does not set out to delineate a ‘correct’ perspective, but provides a taste of another Arab world, where the performers have multiple identities and shifting interests, and where knowing participants are able to challenge the rules of representation. Subversion serves to remind us that there are artists who can tell a different story, and it is one we should be listening to.