Short Takes

    Proximity Machine
    Rosalind Nashashibi
    Book Works, 2008

    Part of Singular Sociology, a project curated by Nav Haq for the London-based publisher Book Works, Rosalind Nashashibi’s new publication is part art book, part publishing curio. The eighty-page volume, sensitively and simply designed by Sara De Bondt, gathers found and re-photographed images into ten chapters. Each sequence invites the reader to form a narrative fragment, a kind of surreal storyboard for a static film. The images — culled from the covers of old Penguin books (Palestinians: From Peasants to Revolutionaries by Rosemary Sayigh, for example) and newspaper clippings (Russell Crowe being arrested) and even a bread necklace — are presented without captions on glossy paper (image details are gathered at the back). The only potential prescribed framing comes from a short fiction text by Will Bradley, but this is presented on different paper, as though as an accidental insert, another curated “object” in the book that entices a free association from the viewer. This is a slim, precious book that attempts no answers.

    _Celebration at Persepolis _ By Michael Stevenson
    JRP/RINGIER, 2008

    Published to coincide with Michael Stevenson’s ‘Persepolis 2530’ at Arnolfini, Bristol, in February 2008, Celebration at Persepolis is an artist’s investigation of the $300 million party hosted by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1971, in a tent city built beside the ruins of Persepolis. The Bristol exhibition was an expanded version of a project presented at Art Basel 2007, which included the reconstruction of one of the guest tents in its current dilapidated form. Stevenson’s small hardbound book, with its grainy black and white photos (by Simon Wachsmuth, Abbas, and others) and glossy jacket of marching soldiers, resembles the kind of dusty 1970s handbook you’d find in the bookshop at the Laleh Hotel in Tehran. Besides Stevenson’s own text, there’s a conversation with a structural engineer regarding the construction of the tent and a historical narrative by Martin Clark. Stevenson muses on his fascination with HIM (His — and Her — Imperial Majesty, the shah and shahbanou): “Persepolis was His stage, His shortcut to the future.” His rambling, occasionally touristic but fascinating text takes in — among others — Warhol and his role as “court painter” to the former monarchs; Tony Shafrazi, the former Tehran (now New York) art dealer; Kamran Diba, architect and first director of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art; and the Houghton Shah-Nameh, swapped for a de Kooning by the TMCA during a clandestine meeting at Vienna Airport.

    The Hakawati
    By Rabih Alameddine
    Knopf / Picador, 2008

    Rabih Alameddine’s third novel represents a major leap in the writer’s ambition. Alameddine’s previous books, Koolaids and I, the Divine, were experimental in structure and innovative in style. But The Hakawati is a masterpiece, worth every one of its 513 pages. Alamaddine romps through appropriations, embellishments, enhancements, and, in some cases, restorations of such classic literary texts as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Homer’s Iliad, the Old Testament, the Qur’an, Levantine folktales, Ahmad al-Tifashi’s medieval treatise on homoeroticism, and uncensored versions of the Thousand and One Nights and Kalila wa Dimna. The skeletal story here is of a son returning to Beirut after twenty-six years in Los Angeles to spend time with his dying father. But it’s also an occasion to tell a wildly complex and interconnected tale of love, lust, loyalty, and betrayal through the centuries. Alameddine’s protagonist, Osama al-Kharrat, has inherited the art of storytelling from his grandfather by way of his Uncle Jihad. As he tells his unconscious father tale after tale, readers catch a glimpse of the Ottoman expulsion of Armenian orphans, the Mediterranean between two world wars, Lebanon at independence, and Beirut during nights of war and days of reconstruction. Though Alameddine is proudly and forcefully claimed as Lebanese by Lebanese, his latest novel makes a boisterous case for cultural miscegenation.

    _An Interrupted History of Punk and Underground Resources in Turkey 1978-1999 _ Edited by Sezgin Boynik and Tolga Guldalli
    Bas, 2008
    Turkish and English

    If you expect Turkish punk to sound like agglutinated Sex Pistols, you’re in for a surprise. In the 1970s, punk meant funk in Istanbul, as in the Curtis Mayfield-infused guitar of legendary rockers Tünay Akdeniz and Cigrisim. Something resembling suburban American headbanger rock followed, with song titles and band names that limn a similar anger and despair: “Violate the Newborn” by Deathroom, or “Condemnation (Fuck You USA)” by Turmoil. But this was not the outgrowth of mere adolescent angst; in Turkey, the oppression was real. An Interrupted History argues that political events of the times — such as the terror of the nationalist Grey Wolves in the 70s and the military coup of 1980 — brought forth this sharp musical transition. Interviews with musicians and other participants, over a hundred images, and an accompanying CD help complete this portrait of the Turkish underground music scene.

    Pars Pro Toto: Susan Hefuna Edited by Hans Ulrich Obrist
    Kehrer Verlag, 2008
    Arabic and English

    Pars Pro Toto presents a comprehensive look at a career that has moved logically and fluidly from video to installation, from sculpture to woodwork. Interior space is a theme throughout Hefuna’s work: vitrines, wooden cages, mashrabiya screens, and large-scale architectural installations. The texts are provided by the book’s editor, the ubiquitous Swiss critic and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. The first text is an interview Obrist conducted with the artist, in which Hefuna discusses her German and Egyptian background, the complicated nature of cultural identification, and her interest in both display and concealment. A second conversation takes place with Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih. A selection of poems by the Syrian-born Adonis are also included.

    Arabesque: Graphic Design from the Arab World and Persia Edited by Ben Wittner and Sascha Thomas
    Die Gestalten Verlag, 2008

    Arabesque covers a wide range of graphic designers and artists across the Middle East — indeed, the book is so ambitious that it seems daunting at first, jumping from graffiti art to font designs to calligraphy-based artworks. But by far the most interesting, and important, inclusion is a collection of contemporary fonts in Arabic script; these are accompanied by interviews with the designers. The effort to compile and define graphic identities is particularly critical given the hegemony of the Roman alphabet in print. Despite the Arab and Persian worlds’ rich calligraphic traditions, their graphic design scenes are quite young. Instead, artistic endeavors have focused on fine art featuring stylistic exaggerations of calligraphic extracts. Arabesque provides an inspiring view of a new generation that is now returning script to its proper place: as text.

    _Exit-Architecture: Design Between War and Peace _ By Stephan Truby
    Springer, 2008

    In the aftermath of the bombing of the House of Commons in 1941, Churchill observed that first we shape our buildings, then they shape us. As a testament to that building’s psychological power, it was rebuilt identically. These moments of construction and reconstruction represent the neuralgic point in the development of a culture: artistic production becomes a representation of survival and a coping mechanism in and of itself. Starting with Roman triumphal arches, author Stephan Trüby explores how war and fear have shaped architecture. His analysis of exit and entry points in buildings, from fire stairs to corridors, highlights the discomfort in modern architecture, cornered between the supposed rationalism of safety measures and the desire to provide cultural meaning. Examples such as the Pentagon and the Jamarat Bridge in Mecca reveal the modern-day obsession with risk management — what the author calls “anti-panic design,” appropriate for a world in a permanent state of emergency.

    _Otto Neurath: The Language of Global Crisis _ By Nader Vossoughian
    Nai Publishers, 2008

    Otto Neurath is best known as a sociologist and political economist who was a member of the Vienna circle in the 1920s. But some of his most significant work was in urban planning and development, which developed as a field in the twentieth century. Neurath’s ISOTYPE (International System of Typographic Picture Education) project was unique in its early utopian belief in urban planning on a global scale, and in its use of visual media to understand the space of the city. Curator and critic Nader Vossoughian, who recently organized an exhibition on this subject at Stroom Den Haag in the Netherlands, provides a thorough overview of Neurath’s work and describes the exchange of ideas that occurred between intellectuals of the period, from Adolf Loos to Le Corbusier. One hopes that this book will bring Neurath to the forefront of discourse on urban planning and lead to a greater appreciation of his significance.