Emily Jacir: Europa @ Whitechapel Art Gallery

The first UK retrospective of Emily Jacir, the Palestinian artist and film-maker, born in Bethlehem in 1972, raised in Saudi Arabia, and now based in Italy, a matrix of locations and identities reflected in her work. According to the introductory wall panel the show ‘investigates movement, exchange, transformation, resistance and silenced historical narratives.’

The exhibition is very white, with large expanses of white wall supporting often very small photos, letters, texts. Or very black, as you enter womb-like rooms to watch the four or five videos included in the show.

Emily Jacir - Europa (Material for a film) (, 2004 - ) Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Dan Weill.

Emily Jacir – Europa (Material for a film) (2004 – ) Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Dan Weill.

In the year of Jacir’s birth, 1972, Palestinian intellectual Wael Zuaiter was gunned down by Israeli Mossad agents outside his Rome apartment after being wrongly identified as one of the terrorists reponsible for the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Material for a film (2004 – ) is a large installation in several rooms bringing together documents, letters, photographs, newspaper cuttings associated with Zuaiter, as well as audio clips of Mahler’s 9th symphony, a transcription of which was found on his desk, and photos of the neighbourhood which Jacir got friends of the murdered man to walk her around while reminiscing about him. There’s a grim photo of the copy of 1001 Nights which he wanted to translate into Italian: 12 of the bullets fired at him entered his body, a 13th wedged in the spine of this book, as you can actually see.

Emily Jacir Material for a film (detail) (Wael Zuaiter's 1001 Nights) 2004 – Multimedia installation, 3 sound pieces, 1 video, texts, photos, archival material, devised in part with the support of La Biennale di Venezia. © Emily Jacir.

Emily Jacir Material for a film (detail) (Wael Zuaiter’s 1001 Nights) 2004 – Multimedia installation, 3 sound pieces, 1 video, texts, photos, archival material, devised in part with the support of La Biennale di Venezia. © Emily Jacir.

My opinion: Initially rather scrappy and patchy, slowly these fragments coalesce to give a sense of the possibilities inherent in a documentary film about Zuaiter and the shooting; the disparate elements create a sense of potentiality, of numerous ways the visuals, the texts and the music could be combined to create different flavours, shed different lights, tell different narratives.

linz diary (2003) Jacir posed at 6pm for 26 days in a row by a fountain in a public square in Linz, then got stills of her pose, in rain or shine, in sickness and in health, from a webcam positioned on a rooftop looking down at the square. Result: 26 x 6-inch-square, colour photographs with winningly banal comments underneath (‘posing with umbrella in the rain’, ‘here despite flu’ etc).

My opinion: So-so snaps. Didn’t light my fire.

from Paris to Riyadh (1998-2001) Throughout her girlhood Jacir regularly flew with her mother from Europe to Saudi Arabia. En route her mother took a marker pen and blacked out every scrap of female flesh in her copy of Vogue magazine in order for it to clear Saudi customs. Now Jacir has gone back over library copies of every Vogue between 1977 and 1997, selected one page, and re-enacted her mother’s action, but first placing transparent sheets of vellum over the pages. Result: 249 page-size sheets of vellum pinned to the wall in two massive rectangular blocks, each one covered in apparently random black shapes. Except they are not random, they are the traces of the images of women’s bodies. Thus Jacir can claim the work ‘speaks about traversing the space in between two forms of repressing women; a space in which the image of women is commodified and a space in which the image of women is banned’.

My opinion: The more I looked, the more I liked it. The more the two poles made sense, the more the polarity of black and white exemplified it. The more the randomness of the shapes took on several layers of meaning, not least the personal homage to her mother’s memory.

stazione (2008-9) Created for the 53rd Venice Biennale, Jacir translated the names of each vaporetto station along Route 1 of the Grand Canal in Venice into Arabic and placed her translations alongside the official signs. Result: 30 or so colour photos of the bilingual signs. As if on cue, the municipal authorities stepped in and curtailed the ‘project’ ordering them to be removed.

Emily Jacir stazione (2008 – 2009) Public intervention on Line 1 vaporetto stops (Arsenale) Commissioned for Palestine c/o Venice, Collateral event of the 53rd International Art Exhibition La Biennale di Veneza. © Emily Jacir.

Emily Jacir stazione (2008 – 2009) Public intervention on Line 1 vaporetto stops (Arsenale) Commissioned for Palestine c/o Venice, Collateral event of the 53rd International Art Exhibition La Biennale di Veneza. © Emily Jacir.

My opinion: 20 or so very average colour photos of boat stops along the canal with Arabic next to the Italian. Not earth-shattering.

ex libris (2010-12) 160 photos in various sizes, ranged around the walls of a medium size room, just some examples of the thousands of books belonging to Palestinians which were looted in 1948 and have ended up in the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem.

My opinion: So-so photos. Poignant subject matter.

ENTRY DENIED (a concert in Jerusalem) (2003) Austrian musicians Marwan Abado, Peter Rosmanith and Frantz Hautzinger were invited to stage a concert in Jerusalem. Marwan was arrested on arrival at Tel Aviv airport on 20 July 2003, held for 24 hours, and then expelled on grounds of ‘security’. Jacir invited the trio to stage the concert they would have put on in Israel, in an empty theatre in Vienna and filmed it. You can watch the whole concert projected on a large screen in a blacked out room.

My opinion: By now I was getting a feel for how Jacir’s works are about silencing and repressing – voices, thought and, here, music. The music is brilliant, by the way, two guys playing traditional drums and a stringed instrument, the third playing mellow jazzy trumpet in a wonderful world music fusion. But in an empty theatre. And deprived of its intended audience in Palestine.

Change/Exchange (1998) Jacir set out with a hundred dollar bill and changed it into francs. Then back into dollars. then into francs. And so on. After 60 exchanges she was left with just small change which no shop would accept. The work is a series of colour photos of the money change booths and shops she used, with each receipt tacked underneath.

My opinion: As photos these are nothing special, but I like the flappy, blu-tacked receipts underneath them (I like sculpture or artifacts made from day-to-day objects). And I liked the basic idea of watching capital whittled down to nothing. Another example of the movement towards the silence, dwindling, reduction, which is a core theme of Jacir’s.

Lydda airport (2009) The old Lydda airport was a stopping off point for British Imperial airways. This five minute black and white film uses an old Handley Page propeller plane from the time to create a nostalgic sense of a vanished age. Lydda airport itself has disappeared, built over by the renamed Ben Gurion airport (repression). And the film also tells the story of a man tasked with meeting world famous flyer Amelia Earheart off a plane with a bunch of flowers but the flight never arrived. (Theme of silence).

Emily Jacir Lydda Airport (2009) Photo: Jason Mandella © Emily Jacir, courtesy Alexander and Bonin, New York.

Emily Jacir Lydda Airport (2009) Photo: Jason Mandella © Emily Jacir, courtesy Alexander and Bonin, New York.

Four layers of sadness and absence – the vanished empire, the beautiful old planes, the renamed airport, the disappeared woman flyer. This is in a way the most incharacteristic of all the works because it has the sentimentality of an actual movie – the gallery chose a still from it for the poster advertising the show as if she were a fashion photographer from the 1940s, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

embrace (2005) A circular motorised sculpture which looks like an empty luggage conveyor system reduced to the size of a circular sofa, going round in circles, going nowhere.

la mia mappa (2013) A large colour photo of a blue puddle with the reflection of an Italian building.

luggage (1998) A colour photo of paper in a river, with a small duck.

nothing will happen (eight normal days in Linz) (2003) Colour video from a static camera positioned on a rooftop overlooking a square in Linz watching people walk around, trams come and go, church bells ring, a siren go off…

Installation view: Emily Jacir: Europa (Nothing Will Happen (eight normal Saturdays in Linz) (2003) Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Dan Weill.

Installation view: Emily Jacir – Europa: Nothing Will Happen (eight normal Saturdays in Linz) (2003) Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Dan Weill.

Maybe I missed a key moment, but this seemed very dull.

Tal al Zaater (1977/2014) In another act of reclamation or republishing, Jacir has been heavily involved in reconstructing footage of a black and white documentary made about the August 12 1976 massacre which took place in the Tal al Zaatar Palestinian refugee camp north east of Beirut during the Lebanese civil war.

My opinion: Obviously the events themselves are horrific but the viewer judges it as film and it has a cool, non-European, black-and-white stylishness of, say, The Battle of Algiers, the unfamiliar street sounds and language intercut with posturing politicians and the sound of gunfire and screaming. I didn’t wait or want to find out if we actually see people being machine gunned or shots of bloody bodies. This happened, but in the 20th century so many disgusting things happened that it is impossible to even list them all, let alone have any emotional reaction. But Jacir is putting it back on the map, the big, bloody, horrible map of twentieth century atrocities.

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