Glory is bound up with First Things and the End of the Line: with radiance, the divine, and death. The eye and the ear. The sun, moon, and stars, whether celestial or down-to-earth.
To be talked about.
To be overwhelmed.
To be touched by the hand of God, or possessed by infernal ambitions.
To aspire to greatness.
To go too far.
To live forever, or to go out with a blaze.
Ablaze with glory.
To hold tight to past triumphs — real and imagined.
To break free of the yoke; to walk in the light; to think or speak, tell the truth, or even lie in one’s own language.
In this issue of Bidoun Issandr El Amrani charts the life and death and afterlife of Souffles, an avant-garde journal of 1960s Morocco, in which a generation of North African intellectuals found and then lost a place they could call home. Z. Pamela Karimi and Michael C. Vazquez consider the contested glories of Persian Empire and Islamic Republic in the history of a single building in downtown Tehran. Sophia Al- Maria describes the phantasmagoric spectacle of the women’s tent at a Qatari wedding feast, while Gary Dauphin ponders the occult chemistry of listening to hip hop and house music as a teenager on the outskirts of New York in the 1980s.
In the music section, Sukhdev Sandhu revisits the legacy of Mingering Mike — simply the most important soul superstar you’ve never ever heard — while Elias Muhanna writes of Julia Boutros, sometime-muse of Hassan Nasrallah. In the film section, Bruce Hainley converses with cult film auteur William E. Jones about his hypnotic filmmaking, the documentary impulse, and the lessons of 1970s pornography.
In the arts, Tom Morton profiles Saâdane Afif, Dominic Eichler sits down with Shahryar Nashat’s latest project, and Kaelen Wilson-Goldie casts an eye to Ziad Antar’s current video in progress. And we have the usual installment of columns on travel, museums, curatorial practice, exhibition reviews, and previews.
And finally, this issue boasts two new departments. Ephemera captures all manner of pettifoggery, whether ridiculous or sublime, while the Glossary provides a wealth of tall tales and minutia — the stuff of legend.
New York Ramak Fazel: 49 State Capitols Storefront for Art and Architecture January 22–March 8, 2008
In the summer of 2006, photographer Ramak Fazel set out to visit every capitol building in forty-nine of the fifty US states. Traveling by camper van, he drove a total of 17,345 miles and spent seventy-eight days on the road. In each state capital he passed through, Fazel photographed the capitol building and the ordinary lives of the people in and around it. Before moving on from each place, he mailed himself a postcard to be picked up at the next city. A third of the way through his trip, Fazel, an American citizen, was detained and mirandized on suspicion of terrorism. He was released and continued his journey, but from then on his observations of everyday America occurred in the context of continuous police interrogation and FBI surveillance. ‘49 State Capitols’ will be the first US exhibition of the photographs from his ill-starred journey.
Los Angeles YZ Kami: Endless Prayers Gagosian Gallery January 8–February 9, 2008
New York–based painter YZ Kami makes his Gagosian debut this winter in the gallery’s Los Angeles space, with five large portraits. Kami, whose paintings are often drawn from photographs or print media, captures precisely those moments that one doesn’t think to memorialize in a photograph or album — a pause, a distracted gaze, a glimmer of pleasure or remorse. The artist’s brushstrokes, richly blurry in texture, suggest an ambiguous space between the photograph and the painting, between the documentary and the fantastic, between what we think we know and the unknowable. In an adjoining space hangs a series of collages that appear from a distance to be Persian architectural mosaics — endlessly circling pieces of paper inscribed with writings drawn from sources as diverse as sacred texts and the poetry of the fourteenth-century mystic Hafez. The circling evokes a sort of Sufi dance and, like the portraits, suggests a moment of contemplation, a moment that escapes our grasp — a moment in between. A concurrent exhibition will run at San Francisco’s John Berggruen Gallery.
New York Unmonumental
**December 1, 2007–March 23, 2008
There’s a shimmering new rectangular megaltih on New York’s storied Bowery Street. The New Museum, New York City’s only museum devoted exclusively to contemporary art, is the most recent addition to the city’s rapidly changing Lower East Side. Designed by Tokyo-based architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, the seven-story space has the curious appearance of irregularly stacked rectangular boxes. The building can’t help but stand out on the Bowery, long home to flophouses and tattoo shops and once the cradle of a thriving punk rock scene. The December 1 opening marks the thirty-year anniversary of the museum. Under the leadership of director Lisa Phillips and a curatorial team composed of Richard Flood, Laura Hoptman, and Massimiliano Gioni, an inaugural exhibition called ‘Unmonumental’ — an international survey of sculpture by thirty artists from around the globe — launches the space. A number of site-specific works — by Korean-based new media team Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, New York–based Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone, and architect Jeffrey Inaba — further rounds out the exhibition, while artist Sharon Hayes presents a performance piece. The museum’s educational program, led by Eungie Joo, is an ambitious one marked by at least one noteworthy international educational and curatorial initiative called Museum as Hub, built around a number of arts spaces from Mexico to Japan, including Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery and Holland’s Van Abbemuseum. In addition, starting in January, artist Anton Vidokle presents Night School, monthly seminars and workshops for students, practitioners, and beyond. Individual sessions will be run by Paul Chan, Okwui Enwezor, Natascha Sadr-Haghighian, Walid Raad, Jalal Toufic, and others.
Cairo Iman Issa The Townhouse Gallery January 6-30, 2008
Iman Issa’s video and photographic works take place in an ambiguous location. Iconic buildings, glittering skylines, and looming billboards abound. The artist captures moments that are known to every city; there is little that roots them in a particular time or space. The exhibition at Townhouse includes four works completed over the course of the past two years. The single-channel video piece Skyline presents a number of locations — their exact coordinates unknown — all mysterious, even eerie, in their ability to evoke a mood of expectancy. Has something happened? Is something about to happen? It’s hard to tell. Still, a feeling of anticipation looms. In Car Wash there’s a quotidian glory in the emergent, shiny car. Edited to suggest one continuous take, the video raises questions as to the viewer’s own position in the creation of spectacle (or anti-spectacle, in this case). The third work in the show, Making Places, is composed of two parts: one series of five videos and one of ten color prints. Herein are spaces that may seem drawn from a stock of urban scenes, but an interlocutor, anonymous to us, is subtly inserted into each image, destabilizing its generic harmony. These works are playful but also intimate, drawn both from the artist’s own memory and the stock of imagery that resides in the collective conscience. The videos capture a number of set, almost performative, gestures, raising questions as to what it takes to personalize an image, a location, or a time.
Beirut Lamia Joreige: A Strange Feeling of Familiarity Kettaneh Building, Achrafieh Nov. 21, 2007–Jan. 12, 2008
Lamia Joreige unveils an ambitious show of four new works in Beirut’s Achrafieh district this winter, under the (uncanny) banner of ‘A Strange Feeling of Familiarity.’ Elements drawn from diverse archives — family photographs, landscapes of the city, even the artist’s own past video works — create a dense weave of fragments that, in the end, provide for a version of history that is intensely subjective, broken, and ephemeral. The show will mark the Beirut debut of the artist’s Je d’Histoires, an interactive multimedia work first presented at the 2007 Venice Biennale that subtly raises questions as to the relationship between image, sound, and text. For this particular work, viewers sit in an intimate viewing booth and, using an interactive interface, manipulate and fashion narratives of their own choosing, drawing from Joreige’s videos, original music composed by Charbel Haber and Discipline, and an enigmatic series of textual narrations. The installation as a whole provides for a demanding but worthwhile experience that, in the end, blurs the line between documentary and fiction, the artist’s intent and one’s own imagination.
Tehran Leyli Matin-Daftari: Paintings Ave Gallery January 4–24, 2008
Iranian painter Leyli Matin-Daftari died in Paris in 2007. One of the most important painters of Iran’s pre-revolutionary period, Matin-Daftari’s show at Tehran’s Ave Gallery this winter will be the first exhibition of her work since she left Iran twenty years ago. The late painter’s visual world is marked by brightly colored still lives reminiscent of childhood fantasy, a sort of dreamy euphoria; on one iconic canvas, half of a chair, two bright orange persimmons, and elements of a table float oddly in a surrealist mode. Her use of negative space and abstraction evokes Shijo prints of Japan, creating a sort of poem in the form of an Iranian painting. Gallerist Fereydoun Ave will show nine paintings drawn from his personal collection — five previously seen canvases along with four newer silkscreens. In the midst of a Tehran art scene that sometimes seems too enamored with the new, a visit to this retrospective of one of Iran’s lost masters should be required of the country’s younger artists and art-going audiences.
Amman Lens On Syria: 30 Years of Contemporary Cinema
Darat al Funun
**December 4, 2007–February 21, 2008
Originally debuted at New York’s Lincoln Center in 2006, ‘Lens on Syria,’ a film program curated by Rasha Salti and produced in collaboration with New York–based nonprofit ArteEast, makes its Middle Eastern premiere this winter at Amman’s Darat al Funun. Running Tuesday nights, the program includes feature-length and short films, as well as documentaries by established and emerging directors such as Omar Amiralay, Meyar al Roumi, and Diana El Jaroudi. More than thirty films will provide an introduction to a cinema culture occasionally described as the Arab world’s best-kept secret. Included in the program is Mohammad Malas’s poignant documentary The Dream, filmed in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon just months before the massacres that bear those names took place. Other films centered on the Arab-Israeli conflict include Tewfik Saleh’s classic The Dupes, Malas’s The Night, and Amiralay’s A Plate of Sardines — or The First Time I Heard of Israel. The program also includes old cinematic gems that have been digitally remastered and subtitled in English specifically for this program, such as Amiralay’s 1974 documentary Everyday Life in a Syrian Village, which he coauthored with the late Syrian playwright Sa’adallah Wannus, and his subversive 1977 documentary The Chickens, which recorded the economic restructuring of Sadad, a “pilot village” located in the Syrian steppe whose inhabitants take up state-subsidized chicken farming.
Dubai Art Dubai Various venues March 19-22, 2008
The second outing for the Gulf’s leading art fair sees it nearly double in size, with about seventy international galleries in attendance. Following the dominance of last year’s sales figures by work from Arab, Iranian, Indian, and Asian artists, there’ll be more regional galleries in attendance, including Silk Road (Tehran), Atassi (Damascus), Sfeir-Semler (Beirut), Galerist (Istanbul), and, from Dubai, Artspace, B21, and The Third Line. At the time of writing, the fair was finalizing special projects with Iranian-American painter and installation artist Amir Fallah (through Rhys Gallery, Boston, and The Third Line), Kader Attia and Jitish Kallat (through London’s Albion), and a mini-exhibition of contemporary work from Pakistan, curated by Salima Hashmi.
Bidoun is creating a lounge and artists’ cinema, showing programs of new video, in the underground car park beneath the fair itself. This new, edgier area of the fair includes a space showing work by Tarek Zaki, courtesy of Cairo’s Townhouse, alongside other contemporary projects. We’ll also be hosting the popular Collectors’ Night and commissioning artists to make limited editions and multiples (see our spring 2008 issue for further information).
Meanwhile, galleries in the historical enclave of Bastakiya are once again staging the alternative Creek Art Fair, led by XVA, which promises a dynamic set of exhibitions and artists’ projects.
Dubai Art for Rent Al Quoz and the American University of Dubai December 11-13, 2007
“Through this ‘happening,’ nobody will have to buy ridiculously overpriced pieces to assert their position as the next best philanthropist to hit town,” says curator Sam Bardaouil about ‘Art for Rent,’ taking a sideswipe at Dubai’s commercial agenda. The December show is a gathering of light installations, video projections, and live performance pieces by AUD professors Roberto Lopardo, Sarah Lahti, and Michael Bray and their students, plus members of the New York–based Independent Performance Group’s Christian Sievers and Ian Civic, as well as Turkish artist Nezaket Ekici. Sievers and Civic are from the Abramovician school, connected to RoseLee Goldberg’s Performa, the annual New York visual arts biennial. The three visiting artists will be presenting new installations and performances, plus lectures and workshops for local practitioners. Taking place in a hangar–cum–construction site in Dubai’s industrial zone, Al Quoz, the exhibition aims to explore expectations that art can add some kind of “authenticity” to this city-in-transit.
Dubai Learning from Dubai: Architectural Association Winter School
Various venues January 4-13, 2008
Promising to “unite radical criticism with the rigorous production of ideas,” London’s AA moves to the Gulf in January for a look at the emerging spatial realities of Dubai and neighboring states. Partnering with the renowned architecture department at the American University of Sharjah, local gallery The Third Line, and design powerhouse Traffic, the nine-day school is directed by frequent Bidoun collaborator Markus Miessen, and involves the likes of Rem Koolhaas and George Katodrytis. The series of lectures and workshops promises to go beyond the usual world’s biggest/tallest island/tower/mall rubric, focusing on topics as diverse as workers’ housing and hidden urban infrastructure. “Today there is an urgent need to understand the Gulf’s transformation in a different light, one not defined by a knee-jerk pessimism… to take seriously what is often being ridiculed,” says Miessen. “Rather than delivering a mere critique, we will initiate a critical practice of involvement.”
Damascus Youssef Abdelke Ayyam Gallery December 1-23, 2007
Youssef Abdelke has been practicing as a graphic artist since 1968, producing posters and book covers, and is known as a leading authority on the history of caricature in Syria and the Arab world. In the 1980s he began combining his illustrations with ascetic studies, often of fish, rendered in charcoal on canvas. He has since pared down his practice further, homing in on other natural phenomena — skulls, for example — as well as ever-more-minimal, mundane subjects, such as an empty box, bent nail, or can of sardines. This is the engraver and master draftsman’s first solo show at leading Syrian modern and contemporary gallery Ayyam.
London Women’s Cinema from Tangiers to Tehran Ciné Lumière, Ritzy Cinema, Rich Mix February 22-28, 2008
‘Women‘s Cinema from Tangiers to Tehran’ promises to be a unique festival focusing on films by women and their representation in cinema from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and the Diaspora. Organized by Parallax Media — a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting world cinema — along with the Institut Français, the festival is curated by James Neil and Suzy Gillett. The full line-up will include Nadine Labaki’s luscious Cannes-debuting Caramel about the trials and tribulations of four women in and around a Beirut beauty salon, as well as Marjane Satrapi’s filmic version of her award-winning graphic novella Persepolis. The latter won the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and includes the voices of French cinema icon Catherine Deneuve and her daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, in the role of the tale’s protagonist, Marji. In addition to the screening program, the festival will boast an educational component — master classes in filmmaking, various symposia with directors and producers, along with smaller Q&A sessions with filmmakers.
On July 31, Iran unveiled the world’s largest hand-made carpet, ordered by the United Arab Emirates for the central prayer hall of Abu Dhabi’s enormous Sheikh Zayed mosque. The carpet was designed by Iranian artist Ali Khaliqi and produced by Iran’s state carpet company, whose director, Jalaleddin Bassam, made the following remarks:
As we all know, the weaving of Persian carpets is a timeless art form. Qasr al-Alam, the carpet you are observing beneath your feet today, is the greatest example of that art, and a testament to the enduring artistry of Iran’s villager-weavers, whose skills have been honed for generations. And yet, for the first time in nearly 3,000 years, our industry is in decline. China, Pakistan, Turkey, and India are to blame, certainly; but it is we who must take the initiative to remind the world of the superiority of our products and traditional artisans. I was recently saddened to learn that 59 percent of Germans have never heard of a Persian carpet. Fifty-nine percent of Germans! In what work are our diplomatic missions engaged? It seems we would be remiss not to inquire about the carpeting needs of the populations where they are stationed, and also identify the latest design preferences, find out which colors are in vogue, so that we can increase orders and the visibility of Iran.
Iran’s membership to the World Carpet Union can help prevent forgeries of traditional Persian rug designs — the theft of our cultural heritage — by other countries, but what it cannot do is convince you of the high value of an authentic, hand-crafted Persian carpet. Which is why I want to speak to you, the visiting dignitaries. You have heard me speak of the timelessness of this art. Now, let us bring this timelessness to your diplomatic headquarters, which might otherwise lack the accoutrements of perpetuity. Let us clothe your bare executive suite, so that your business partners and fellow policy-makers might luxuriate in a sense of infinitude. Let us pave the sad floors of your rented condominium with the knots of 3,000 years. Think of it as a gesture of goodwill.
In October 2006, US Army Specialist Todd Shriver phoned his mother from Ramadi, Iraq. Marcelle Shriver, an office manager in Stratford, New Jersey, learned that Todd’s unit had been using a children’s toy called Silly String to detect trip wires connected to bombs planted by Iraqi insurgents.
Mrs. Shriver sent a few dozen cans of the “foamable resinous composition” to her son and began to collect cans for other soldiers, posting notices on bulletin boards and in her church newsletter.
Earlier this year the American media picked up the story, and Just for Kicks, Silly String’s manufacturer, donated cases of the product to Mrs. Shriver. The Army announced that it would accept this shipment of non-standard-issue equipment but declined to comment on its use. But there was an additional problem; because it comes in an aerosol can, the foaming agent is considered a hazardous material. Most shipping companies refused to even consider it.
In October 2007, eighty thousand cans of Silly String were loaded out of the Shrivers’ garage in Stratford, finally en route to Iraq, courtesy of Capacity LLC, a shipping company with experience in dealing with hazmat. “I am so happy right now,” Marcelle Shriver told one reporter. “I am shaking.”
TRUTH THROUGH EXAGGERATION
Researchers at the University of Central Lancashire have determined that animated caricatures are twice as effective at generating positive identification as conventional composite sketches. Dr. Charlie Frowd, lead investigator, says, “Normally, static computer-generated or sketched facial composites of criminals are publicized through newspapers and TV shows… However, they are often poorly recognized. This new research finds that a composite, especially a bad one, is much better identified if seen as a moving caricature.”
Jason Fried of the blog 37signals.com summarized the finding: “If the guy has a distinctive chin, play that up in the sketch. If he has distinguishing eyes, highlight them. If he has a unique crook to his lips, draw ’em so you can’t miss ’em. A photorealistic sketch is an exercise in accuracy, but an exaggerated caricature is an exercise in identity.”
Caricatures of Hollywood actor Brad Pitt, ex–Prime Minister Tony Blair, and British TV host Ant McPartlin have been created to showcase the project.
Though it is unclear whether the same logic obtains for non-white faces — or for non-celebrities, for that matter — police in Derbeyshire, England, will roll out the new technique in early 2008.
BATTLE OF THE BURJ(S)
From Qutub Minar to Petronas Towers, to Taipei 101 to the GRES-2 Power Station, the endeavor to erect a structure that reaches into the firmament has for centuries engaged the energies of emperors, pharaohs, emirs, and multinational corporations. Today the world looks to Dubai to claim the title of World’s Tallest Building.
Burj Dubai (“Dubai Tower”), a luxury tower set to reach a record of more than 800 meters (with 164 floors) by the time it opens later this year, was recently challenged by Al Burj (The Tower), the proposed centerpiece of what will be the world’s largest waterfront development. The developer, Nakheel, has been tight-lipped about the skyscraper for fear of provoking its rival, Emaar Properties, into crowning Burj Dubai with a hundred-meter spire. “Height isn’t everything,” Nakheel CEO Chris O’Donnell said, expressing a preference for iconic status over mere stature.
But why would either developer stop building? Contractors and construction officials are speculating that Nakheel would be foolish not to tack on the meters necessary to surpass Emaar. There is also the prospect of each developer building incrementally, adding on another few meters every week to best its competitor, ensuring that neither will remain the winner or loser; but such a situation can only continue until one building’s structure can support no more growth, or a third tower overcomes them both — for there can be no lasting draw in the pursuit of the heavens.
IDEAL ARAB MOTHER AWARD
Press release, Dubai Shopping Festival:
The story of Fatma Fadhel Al Mazrooi is one of perseverance and courage.
Says Fatma, “When I got married I moved to Abu Dhabi with my husband and five children — three wonderful girls and two equally wonderful boys. Unfortunately, my marriage with my husband did not work out and we had to seek for divorce.”
A woman who believes in the will of God and one who does not accept defeat easily, she set about providing the brightest of futures for her five young children.
Today, thanks to the perseverance of this mother, twenty-nine-year-old Alia, the eldest daughter in the family, is working toward her master’s in pancreas planting in Switzerland; twenty-seven-year-old Fares is studying civil engineering in the US and will be graduating in May this year; Abdullah who is twenty-five and Hessah at twenty-three are both studying medicine at Al Khalej (Gulf) University in Ajman and are planning to continue their studies in Germany or Switzerland; and twenty-year-old Danah, the youngest, is in her third year at the Zayed University studying décor engineering. All five of them are fluent in Arabic, English, and French, except Abdullah who also speaks Spanish.
“Bringing them up was by no means an easy task. Every step was a challenge as a single divorced mother in this community, but I didn’t want to remarry because I wanted to give all I had to my children, so what people thought really didn’t matter to me. I thank HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and UAE Minister of Defense for this great prize that motivates any mother to give more for a better generation…”
In order to visit Cairo’s Presidential Gifts Museum, one must circumnavigate the winding walls of Abdin Palace, eventually arriving at the back door — Paris Gate — abutting the bustling residential district of Abdin. A working-class neighborhood sprawls out in stark contrast to the legendarily luxuriant gardens beyond the gate.
The spirit of soaring state power is tangible here, as one passes through the former servants’ entrance. An array of security organizations must be propitiated, from the suspicious policemen of the Abdin police station around the corner to the hostile-looking Republican Guards lining the path to the gate. Any visit begins with a perfunctory interrogation that is dutifully recorded for posterity. “Your job? Reasons for visiting the museum?” A lurking military type points out the exact route by which the viewer should explore the museum.
The day I made my pilgrimage to the Gifts Museum, I appeared to be the only unarmed man on the premises. There are weapons everywhere in President Mubarak’s Hall, the first stop on my self-guided tour. The room features a collection of traditional daggers from the Gulf, an early twentieth-century rifle from Libya (a proud reference to Omar El Moukhtar’s heroic struggle against the Italians), as well as two gold-plated Kalashnikovs from Saddam Hussein.
The golden guns have names, Tabouk and Al-Qadisiyya. (In the 1980s, Saddam liked to refer to the Iran-Iraq War as a “Second Al-Qadisiyya,” commemorating the epic seventh-century battle that ended with the fall of Sassanid Persia to Islam.) These tokens from Iraq, Libya, and Saudi Arabia flirt with the Egyptian president’s self-image as a military commander, while not-so-subtly hinting at Egypt’s role as both weapons manufacturer and arms dealer throughout the 80s.
The official gifts of the Israelis and the Palestinians (first the PLO, later the Palestinian Authority) reflect the delicate balance of power and possibilities in the region. Israel’s gift represents a threatening paradox — a prehistoric bronze spearhead inside a wooden box decorated with an olive branch. The Palestinians’ gifts are clichéd statements of pan-Islamic solidarity — shell-inlaid wooden models of the Dome of the Rock, surrounded by Qur’anic verses.
And then there is His Excellency the President and First Lady Hall of Gifts, where the jumbled display is more reminiscent of a storage room than a museum space, producing a curiously powerful jolt — a power that derives not from wealth but from the machinery of oppression. I found myself engaged in a silent, imaginary conversation with the Masonic iconography of competing security organizations, whose coded gifts were given in commemoration of various national and military holidays. The seemingly blunt and banal language of loyalty actually possesses subtleties that reflect the shifting constellation of power and authority attending the ascension of Mohamed Hosni Mubarak to the highest executive position in the land.
The Air Force holds a special position in the museum. An aviator’s helmet is an emblem of the president’s years as a fighter pilot. The air force is the only division that presents the leader with a small personal pistol. They, his sons and former comrades-in-arms, declare themselves ready to provide for his personal physical defense. The army, on the other hand, has steadily lost power since the onset of Mubarak’s presidency. Their offering here seems intended as a gentle reminder of a shared history — a photograph of Mubarak as a junior officer in the midst of an infantry battalion.
The Ministry of Interior, perhaps the most important element of the state apparatus, showers the president with crystal, including a presidential portrait engraved on a crystal goblet, along with a crystal model of the Mubarak Security Academy. The aesthetics of crystal, a surrogate to precious diamonds, carry a specific political message. The fragility and transparency of crystal reflects a confidence in the perfect efficacy of the security apparatus; the delicacy of brutality. It is as if the ministry is reassuring its supreme commander that they are his lens, revealing the inner workings of the state while remaining completely transparent to his gaze.
There are gifts from average citizens, too. Citizen Sonia Habashy offers a large painting of a grumpy old man; another likeness, crafted by an unnamed citizen, weaves a portrait of the president as an emaciated young man with a narrow face, posed on a small, cheap, touristic carpet. A young artist named Mohamed Abd El Rehim gambles on the future continuity of the presidential line with an alabaster Mount Rushmore–like sculpture, featuring the visage of the president carved out of a mountain, surrounded by the faces of his grandsons. The official attributes of the leader, as promulgated by the state propaganda machine, are all present in Amr Fahmy’s cartoon drawing of the president, inscrutable in his shades, the complete lexicon of Egyptian symbology held tight in his embrace (the pyramids, the Nile, minarets, church towers, soaring military jets, and factories). At the end of this display, visitors confront a large-scale blowup of the president’s national identification card, suggesting that he is an average citizen who just happens to rule the country.
As I moved from one hall to the next, I had to show my own national identification card over and over again. Just before the exit, I managed to spend a moment lingering in front of a nineteenth–century sword from the Khedive Ismail collection. The blade bears, in German, an all-too-fitting command: “Ye you poor and guilty soul tremble when I raise my ax.” I got the message. And left.
It’s nearing massage time in Tito’s spa. Blue, industrial-sized clocks suspended from the corridor ceiling tick off the minutes at ten meter intervals. On the walls, Tropicana-colored stripes point toward several ominous sounding destinations: “Elektroterapija,” “Zubna Ambulanta,” and “Laboratorija.” As you pad toward the Beauty Center, distant voices hover, a door closes, footsteps fade, and far away the sound of a lone ping– pong game is almost audible. Perhaps long ago, David Lynch traveled to what was then the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and made a film that you’ve just entered. Feelings of nostalgia aroused by the surrounding signs of that socialist-era civilization well up simultaneously with a sinister sense that the experience isn’t vicarious but actual, that somehow you’ve entered the banal reality of that past.
The famous therapeutic properties of Igalo’s Adriatic mud have been drawing crowds to the spa on Montenegro’s Boka Kotorska (Bay of Kotor) for more than a century. Mud, like other, more celebrated substances, encourages people to come together, get relaxed, take off clothing, and heal the wear and tear of everyday life. The seaside suburb of Igalo seems to have passed through the former Yugoslavia’s astonishingly complex and brutal civil war without much trauma; that the Institute has survived since Tito’s era without much change of any sort — from the well-preserved interior decor to the practitioners’ education and the treatments offered — is something of a miracle.
For some reason (the hotel representative with whom I spoke was at a loss as to why), Norwegians have an especially enduring relationship with the health resort, which was built up to its current, new brutalist form in the 1970s. In the decades following Tito’s death, Dutch, German, and, most recently, Russian travelers have discovered this haven of low-cost, qualified thalassotherapy and medical treatments, as well as starched sheets and facials.
Of course, searching for a satisfying spa experience in an institution that channels the Cold War era may seem as counterintuitive as checking into a sprawling, water-stained, concrete bunker to commune with nature and get a little rest. However, in the wake of two world wars, the architectural aesthetic manifested at Igalo apparently offered a logic of exposure that made a lot of sense as a form of civic therapy. The honesty of raw concrete and exposed architectural structures asserts the ultimate in social, political, and cultural transparency — a building-sized X-ray and the first step toward diagnosis and rigorous treatment for a sick society.
The Institute’s architectural-pathological ambitions extend to its clients. Spa therapy is understood first and foremost as a medical, scientific enterprise; the Institute houses a university medical program, and “wellness options” such as facials, pedicures, and massage are relatively new additions. Sitting down to a breakfast of whole-wheat toast, boiled egg, and cucumber, it’s easy to feel that you should be thinking more seriously about your skeletal, respiratory, and muscular systems and investing less in your surfaces.
It may also occur to you that the ethic of unselfish responsibility, integral to the Institute’s original mandate, is precisely the kind of learned behavior that other luxury spas aim to shut down. The “get beautiful” instinct that guides one toward acupressure, pedicures, and facials is discouraged at Igalo. Rather, the State (the Institute is jointly owned by Serbia, Montenegro, and, to a significant extent, its employees) has engineered a supportive environment to help the client monitor and maintain personal well-being — but to what end? The inclusion of a bomb shelter alongside an art gallery, dental facilities, and a store for minor purchases indicates an unpleasant reality that threatens to interfere with your cure.
The government sponsorship of activities aimed at disarming your everyday anxieties also contributes to a diffused sense of paranoia and the alarming feeling that you are enclosed within an early sci-fi experiment. The chandelier shaped like a strand of DNA, the transparent space-bubble telephone booths, and the communal television lounge on each floor — the “this can’t be real” quality of the spa’s interior spaces and decoration certainly adds to the socialist-heyday holiday charm. At night, the reception area, main bar, and restaurant are mostly quiet; light seems to seep out from recessed corners and from where the wall and ceiling meet; a maze of corridors and complex elevator systems feed guests towards the broad horizons typical of the spa’s designated social activity hubs. The almost absolute darkness outside gives the impression that you’re floating through deep space; it’s also possible that you’re on a mission exploring the bottom of the ocean. In either case, cooperation with the crew and performance of duties are very important, and leaving doesn’t seem like an option.
Which is ridiculous, of course. The walls of staggered balconies testify to the fact that you are just one of many identical holiday-goers looking for a bit of sun and a newspaper. In any case, the particular experience that is the Igalo Institute may not last beyond 2007. After thirty years, the spa is enduring capitalist growing pains and is due for private ownership and a full makeover. But for now at least, this monument to the body politic is open for business in all its symbolic and sensual glory, and the flocks of well-sunned elderly ladies and gentlemen in terrycloth don’t seem to be going anywhere.
With Georgina Adam, Caroline Clough-Lacoste, Jussi Pylkkänen, Matthew Weigman, Bijan Khezri, Hammad Nasar, Claudia Cellini, Andrée Sfeir-Semler, John Martin, Fereydoun Ave, William Lawrie, and Nathalie Khoury
Over the past few years, the line between the activities of galleries and those of auction houses has become increasingly blurred. In spring 2007, Christie’s bought London contemporary gallery Haunch of Venison, and in New York held an auction of Geneva dealer Pierre Huber’s collection. For the first time, old masters fair TEFAF Maastricht included galleries owned by auction houses alongside dealers. Sotheby’s has employed dealers as consultant curators for some of its auctions and curated selling shows, the latest being the sculpture exhibition ‘Beyond Limits’ at Chatsworth House, UK, fall 2007. Meanwhile, the competition for first-rate Arab and Iranian contemporary art between galleries, dealers and auction houses has intensified.
Bidoun explores this theme with a panel of gallerists, artists, auctioneers, collectors, and others involved in the art market, aiming to generate debate and further research into emerging art markets in the Middle East.
Antonia Carver: How significant is the blurring of the line between the primary and secondary markets?
Georgina Adam, editor at large, The Art Newspaper: We are currently looking at great changes in the art market. The market is divided between the Sotheby’s/Christie’s duopoly, which dominates the upper end of the market, and a fragmented group of dealers who can only consolidate by joining together to do art fairs. The auction houses have the financial strength and international networks that many dealers lack, and with prices rising, this also disadvantages [the dealers].
Caroline Clough-Lacoste, fair manager, Art Paris and Art Paris Abu Dhabi: Let’s not forget that Anglo-American auction houses do not use “experts” but employ specialists in order to provide total security for their clients. Consequently, specialized galleries have become linked directly to auction houses in order to offer their clients, or collectors, what they believe to be most suitable to the taste of the market. We are entering a commercial era.
Antonia Carver: What is your involvement, as auction houses, in the primary market?
Jussi Pylkkänen, president, Christie’s Europe: Our acquisition of Haunch of Venison allows us to meet the demand [for private acquisitions] through a wholly owned subsidiary that is separate but complementary to the secondary auction market. In fact, this subsidiary merely formalizes for us the well-established practice in the auction world of brokering private treaty sales.
In more general terms, auction houses work with colleagues across the art market, including, in some rare cases, artists. The fast-paced growth of contemporary art, as well as the productivity of artists, has meant that sales reflect this expansion and more very recent works are offered at auction as well as through galleries.
Matthew Weigman, worldwide director of sales publicity, Sotheby’s: Primary market activities at Sotheby’s have primarily been event-driven for example, a gallery could not emulate the marketing Sotheby’s provided with the [Damien Hirst-designed restaurant] Pharmacy Auction (October 2004).
Practically speaking, auction houses still only represent a small proportion of the primary market, and dealers wield great power. Ultimately, what we are seeing is that it is artists who have the power they’re the ones in the driver’s seat making decisions about whether they sell through dealers or at auction.
Antonia Carver: What about if we look at the primary/secondary question in global terms, regarding emerging markets?
Bijan Khezri, chief executive officer, Artist Pension Trust: I don’t feel there has been a real shift in the market. For multiple reasons, the predominance of auction houses has increased. In particular, in emerging markets such as the Middle East, there may not only be a lack of supply of “secondary” artworks but also the gallerist may use the auction house as a way of contextualizing and exposing primary artworks, as is increasingly the case in India.
[But] the rise and preponderance of the contemporary art market is certainly a phenomenon that will give rise to a new set of dynamics. In a market that has lacked both liquidity and transparency, trust and confidence is critical. Whatever erodes trust will damage the art market in the long term.
Hammad Nasar, gallerist, Green Cardamom, London: The line between primary and secondary markets in the emerging art world, particularly the South Asian markets, which I am closest to, was never very distinct in the first place. What we see happening with Pierre’s sale or the Haunch of Venison acquisition looks like disruptions from a Euro-American perspective but fits right into how the market currently operates in India or China.
Bijan Khezri: China is a market where the boundaries never really existed and where the artist is also gallerist and dealer at the same time.
Antonia Carver: How will galleries fare, given the convergence?
Claudia Cellini, co-director, The Third Line, Dubai: If the gallery is meant to support or regulate the supply (through selection/curating), and the auction house is further supposed to offer either a) bargain prices or b) the choicest pieces, then I worry about the quality and credibility should they control both processes.
Andrée Sfeir-Semler, founder-director, Galerie Sfeir-Semler, Hamburg/Beirut: Art auctions profit from what the galleries do, and while “difficult” pieces can sell badly, easy figurative works go for high prices. Of course, we do also profit auctions can push prices up for our artists and confirm their value. They also bring art as a “society factor” to a much bigger circle of collectors, but in this process art can become a bourgeois sign of wealth and belonging to a certain milieu.
Hammad Nasar: For galleries that do not deliver much more than a distribution/sales function for the artists they work with, this is an existential crisis. Should they focus on even fresher artists that the auction houses can’t reach, or should they get into bed with one or more of the auction houses? And if so, do they act as principal — buy from artists and sell on through auction, a questionable but common enough practice — or as a fig leaf for auction houses to allow them to maintain the rhetoric of not going directly to artists?
Antonia Carver: Haunch of Venison was not selected for Frieze this year, and fairs such as Art Basel have said they won’t accept galleries owned by auction houses. Would you?
Caroline Clough-Lacoste: Regarding Art Paris, for the moment, no.
John Martin, director, Art Dubai: Auction houses have no direct involvement in Art Dubai [formerly the DIFC Gulf Art Fair] it would be a conflict of interest — although we can imagine that sales will coincide with the fair in future years.
Antonia Carver: What does the auction houses’ involvement in the primary market mean, potentially, for the Middle East?
Georgina Adam: In general, new buyers tend to be more comfortable at auction; they see it as more transparent, and other people bidding reassures them. But as more people start collecting, the market can broaden and more dealers appear. What is essential for the emerging art market in the Middle East is an institutional infrastructure in the form of museums and art schools, and this is something the state can provide, either directly or by encouraging private collectors to exhibit their holdings.
John Martin: The auction houses play an important role they are the new kids on the block when it comes to contemporary art, but they were here at the beginning in Dubai. Collectors benefit most from building up a relationship with a gallery but should use both galleries and auctions, for different things.
Fereydoun Ave, artist and director, Ave Gallery, Tehran/Dubai: In the Middle East, the auction houses are, on occasion, sourcing directly from contemporary artists. For some artists, they are selling the same work available in the galleries and so attempting to replicate the galleries’ work, but without their longer-term investment in the artist.
Auctions are one-off events, and when they become the only outlet for an artist whose work has risen in price beyond his collector base, it’s precarious. And for the galleries, it’s unethical and unfair. The question seriously needs to be asked: What are auction houses for? What is their role in today’s market?
William Lawrie, specialist, modern and contemporary Arab and Iranian art, Christie’s: The Middle East tends to feature gallerists rather than dealers, and very few work in the secondary market. We all have overlapping clients and works of art it’s inevitable, but our relationships can be complementary rather than competitive. It’s much more clear-cut with older work, but by definition, much of contemporary art is primary, and we’re going to have a lot more of this blurring. The scene here has become more competitive, but the galleries have benefited since the auction houses became more active in the region.
Most of the work in our third auction in Dubai, on October 31, was from private collectors, mostly from Europe and the US. We now have stringent criteria for the contemporary work it must be unique, something the galleries couldn’t provide.
Nathalie Khoury, director, Galerie Sfeir-Semler, Beirut: [In Beirut] while we’re a reference for collectors and curators, we don’t compete with dealers or auction houses. There’s a buzz around Middle Eastern artists, but the auction houses aren’t interested in [contemporary Lebanese] work yet, partly because it tends to raise sensitive political issues.
Antonia Carver: So is no work of art “too new” for the auction houses now?
William Lawrie: No — as long as it’s one of a kind.
Hammad Nasar: The auction houses are now testing their role as a distribution platform there are examples of works by artists fresh from art school, without a local solo show under their belts, who make their debut in the international art world at a contemporary auction. This creates distinct challenges for all participants.
Antonia Carver: Where does all this leave artists?
Georgina Adam: Experience shows that if there is a downturn in the market, and [the work of young artists] suddenly stops selling at auction, it happens in the public arena and can trigger a lack of confidence, both among buyers and for the artist.
Claudia Cellini: The new feeding frenzy around Iranian artists is like the creation of a “pre-primary” market. I feel like the primary market has to be the joint risk of gallery and artist, through the exhibition, to an initial collector-base/audience.
Hammad Nasar: For artists, at least the sought-after ones working in easily sellable media, this blurring of boundaries brings into focus what they get from their galleries apart from sales. Auctions can do that better usually at higher prices with lower commissions. But artists cannot and should not expect a market mechanism to be looking out for them and managing their careers. The lure of financial gain and international recognition by appearing in the same catalogue as their past heroes can be an intoxicating mixture.
Bijan Khezri: Artists understand that auctions are double-edged swords. And the gallerist who anonymously plays the auction market to either protect or build price momentum for certain artists is not representing the artists’ interests either. Record-breaking prices usually increase the artist’s media visibility, and in the eyes of the new-rich art buyers, that may equal prestige. But essentially, it remains the high standing of the gallerist that forms the basis for the auction’s pull, not the other way around.
Iranian visual artists have fallen into a coma. After a decade of relative openness, we’re unclear about our future, thanks to the arrival of a new administration and attendant changes in artistic policies-and, indeed, aesthetic outlook.
All around us, arts spaces are closing. The resignation of Mohammad Mehdi Asgarpour as head of the Cultural-Artistic Organization of the Tehran Municipality was devastating to artists who had relied on his financial support for larger, more innovative public projects. Likewise, the August 2007 resignation of Behrouz Gharibpour, who headed a semi-independent downtown venue for artists called the Iranian Artists’ Forum, further complicated matters, for he was among the last bastions of reformist thinking within the establishment. Since the new administration has been in place, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMCA) — which serves as the principal artistic venue in the country, as well as the architect of most policy for the visual arts-has moved away from contemporary work, holding exhibits titled “The Art of Resistance” (which featured an enormous banner bearing the face of Hassan Nasrallah at the museum entrance), “The Art of Islamic Calligraphy and Gilding,” “Flight and Endurance,” and “Costume Design.”
Against this charged and changed backdrop, it may be helpful to map the scene by dividing Iranian artists into three general categories. There are those who, religious or not, come under the protection of the state. They often participate in exhibits organized by the TMCA and are regularly sent abroad as privileged official Iranian representatives in biennials and the like. A second group of artists have established themselves outside of the official system. They typically create paintings and sculptures that are more or less innocuous, often decorative. These artists have managed to do well in the local art market and, in most cases, have continued producing and selling their works unabated in the posher galleries around town, as well as at auctions in Dubai.
A third group — and this is the group that I want to focus on-is made up of mostly younger artists who, given the increasingly global nature of the art world, have been trying to position themselves within an international market. With the advent of the new administration, this third group tends to be deprived of government assistance in the form of access to venues, access to materials, and simple moral support. Members of this third group tend to show their works in lesser-known galleries and to limited circles of friends and buyers. Still, many among this group have shown their work to foreign curators. The more successful among them have shown their work outside the country.
But engaging with the international art market is itself a fraught process. More often than not, artists of the third group are invited to take part in group cultural shows, under the banner of Iranian Contemporary Art. As such, they may occasionally feel the urge to present their work within the framework of grand narratives of liberation or some sort of exotic political commentary.
Along with a proliferation of such cultural shows, there have been a number of workshops bringing European artists to Iran in recent months, with a stated aim of providing a platform for exchange-a worthy enough goal. But like the group shows in Berlin and Paris and so on, these encounters have also been loaded, particularly given the position the West occupies in Iranian arts education, with our art history books, for the most part, European in orientation. Intellectual discussions within the community are too often measured against a Western yardstick that doesn’t necessarily correspond with the realities of the visual arts in Iran or our particular traditions. When a project originates in the West, its merit is rarely questioned.
Herein begin the double standards that we must all come to terms with. Faced with increasingly limited opportunities in the official realm, and at the same time, with a mounting Western appetite for the ethnic, we have had to contend with the following question: Should we try to curry favor with the tastes of the Western curator, or await the day the TMCA falls under more favorable leadership?
In the past I’ve suggested that the third group ought to resist the lure of the exotic, that we must continue to present our work in a manner that is faithful to independent thought. We should collaborate, support each other, buy one another’s work. In the past year and a half, there have been a number of hopeful signs. Several meetings took place in which artists came together to join forces. Some of these meetings were held at Azad Art Gallery, others at artists’ private studios. At least one collective studio was established in this time, called Side Effects. Still, this spirit of solidarity didn’t last long.
An analogy to the country’s reform movement may be useful here. Iran’s golden age of political reform spanned the eight years of Mohammad Khatami’s presidency. But that period ended, in part due to the inability of the reform movement to form a united front. Finding it useless to blame their woes on the totalitarian nature of the state, reformists started pointing fingers at each other, leading to factionalism within their ranks. Likewise, this generation of third-group artists has similarly frozen in the face of the obstacles before them. We implode, break down, and, much like a scorpion facing danger, sting ourselves.
Eventually, Azad Gallery meetings diminished in frequency, Side Effects shut down without so much as leaving an aftertaste, and artists of the third group are again depending on the hope of a connection to the outside market. Today it’s more important than ever for us to support one another, to resist neat narratives of victimization and pat understandings of what it means to be an Iranian artist. In short, what we, the third group, need is a third way — an approach that is born of this particular moment and that, in the end, is distinctly ours.
This year’s Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture takes the city itself — one of the fastest growing in China — as its central subject and inspiration.
The previous incarnation, held in 2005 and curated by MIT academic Yung Ho Chang, was more or less a straightforward celebration of the latest achievements of Chinese architects. This year, the Shenzhen government has requested that architect and biennale director Qingyun Ma take on a radically different portfolio: to curate a platform of ideas and pause for a moment of introspection that examines the particular needs of the city’s inhabitants and debates its future.
Initially brought onboard to oversee the biennale’s publications, I joined the Shanghai-based architect Yuyang Liu and Los Angeles–based architect Peter Zellner as a curator early this year. (I’d been living and working in China since 2005 when, by chance, I’d ended up exhibiting a series of photos and interviews from Cairo’s ‘City of the Dead’ in the Guangzhou Triennale.)
Today, Shenzhen is looking for new role models. The city began its growth spurt in 1979, when Deng Xiaoping created the first experiment in free-market economics in the region bordering Hong Kong. Workers flooded in from all over China; today around ninety-five percent of Shenzhen’s inhabitants have come from elsewhere. The sustained economic boom made Shenzhen China’s richest city and, for a while, a potent symbol of the coexistence of communism and the free market. The authorities have worked hard to meet “global standards,” planting 500,000 new trees each year and encouraging new “art and fashion” centers, for example.
But such initiatives notwithstanding, and though the city is still young — the average age of its inhabitants is twenty-eight — it has become a victim of its own success. Rural parents no longer want to send their daughters to Shenzhen, due to its well-publicized sex industry, and once-packed job centers are running dry. Gangsters run a growing drug trade and Shenzhen has become known as Second-Wife City, a place where rich Hong Kongers go to indulge their whims.
The biennale attempts to wrestle with this moment in Shenzhen’s history by looking at the lifeline of aging cities like London, New York, Jerusalem, and Cairo and comparing them with works-in-progress such as Dubai, Haikou, and Miami. By looking at these other cities, we hope to bring Shenzhen into a broader dialogue and aspire toward a new paradigm for urban reinvention.
The Shenzhen government has made interesting proposals. They asked us to look at personal stories of people who make unique and spontaneous interventions in Shenzhen, like the street hawker who was killed saving a man from a robber, the resident who made his home totally environmentally savvy, and the man who rebuilds discarded furniture to create comfortable public “lounge” spaces.
The city government, predictably, also asked us to review their new policies, which for a city that once represented China’s embrace of capitalism, now take a decidedly more communist turn. (For example, the government has plans to strip the city of advertising billboards and, for the first time in decades, build social housing.) So far, they appear to be seeking an engaged, rather than a purely
In addition, the Shenzhen Biennale is linked to the Hong Kong Biennale for the first time, reflecting the symbiotic relationship between the two cities. The theme of the Hong Kong element is ‘Re-fabricating City,’ an echo of Shenzhen’s title, ‘City of Expiration and Regeneration.’ The two events will share forums and exchange ideas and exhibitions.
We are a mixed team from various disciplines, working with contributors around the globe; our communication and working methods are at times erratic and complicated. Sometimes we need translators; at times each of us has been misunderstood. Using BlackBerrys, mobile phones, Skype, and email we’ve created a new, often poetic, language of hybrid Chinese-English text-speak (in which to be called “un-Chinese” is the worst insult imaginable).
In October, I traveled to Hong Kong, Vancouver, London, Lagos, and Dubai, in search of what Qingyun Ma calls “models of anti-permanence, expirative strategies, and a few real new initiatives on reverse urbanism.”
Everywhere citizens and officials apply their own unique logic and creativity to the slippery notion of regeneration. In Dubai, the authorities pay an Australian urban planning firm to provide a retroactive framework for planning the city. In Rio de Janeiro, in a favela where the government has little to no authority, drug cartels are commissioning Dutch artists Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn to paint each house in the entire favela as a separate pixel of a larger painting — making it the world’s largest artwork. In Guangzhou, Lagos, and Cairo, an intricate process of recycling means that suburbs are knitted together from different colored scraps of wood, cardboard, billboards, and corrugated iron.
Each city has its own emotional composition, too — the urban space has become a form of magazine, complete with quotes and headlines that instantly explain its desired identity and target audience. Forces such as love, hate, joy, and intelligence are urban commodities, traded on by shop owners, politicians, bouncers, taxi drivers, and tourist boards. At Lagos Airport, posters proclaim: “Nigerians are the happiest people on earth”; in Dubai, huge roadside billboards tell people that they’re able to “think.”
The Shenzhen Biennale investigates these trends, which often appear to contradict presupposed ideas of reality (and each other), yet indicate universal ambitions.
One commission involves “streetologist” photographer Reineke Otten exhibiting a series of global Pantone charts that map skin color against trends in fake tans and facial bleaching agents — trends that indicate flows of aspiration as much as dissatisfaction. They demonstrate a universal desire for both sameness and diversity, and a longing for change.
Every city struggles with and revels in its own eccentric mix of histories and cultures, wants, desires, and futures. Taking an iconoclastic, even deliberately utopian, approach, the biennale favors active engagement rather than academic survey; it will be a collection of fragments, an “emotional supermarket” display of possibilities.
In this way, the biennale is local in approach, if not in content. “Chinese shows,” says architect Neville Mars, of Beijing’s Dynamic City Foundation, “often present a random unorganized jumble of bold (potentially interesting) ideas and new projects as big solutions for the future.” Mars, whose project for the Shenzhen Biennale is titled Road Map to the Chinese Dream 2020, envisages this biennale as existing in opposition to the often rigid linearity of its Western counterparts.
Yet we hope to avoid simplistic statements that oscillate between two imagined opposing sides. In China, politics are plainly not a sphere for too much open discussion. We who are involved in exhibitions — this exhibition in particular — approach the political as it is played out in everyday urban life.
Ziad Antar doesn’t play football. He doesn’t even like football. He comes from a part of the world where the popularity of football surpasses that of any other organized sport (the streets of Beirut erupted in fireworks and Italian, Brazilian, French, and German flags during the last World Cup, and local teams Al-Nejmeh, Al-Ansar, and Al-Hekmeh boast fans of such fierce loyalty that the army frequently intervenes during matches lest the uproar stir sectarian strife). But football doesn’t interest Antar much. So as he sets out to make his next, as yet untitled, video set in a football stadium and featuring Al-Nejmeh players staring down the camera in a performative exercise of shooting practice, you know it’s going to be a little different.
“There is no script, and it is one sequence,” says Antar. “It is not about football. The whole idea is to create with a football team, and to experiment with something different than what we expect from a football team, [which is] challenge and confrontation. [Mine] is an anti-confrontation video. [The players] are not facing each other… They are playing for the camera… Each one is facing the camera alone with his own ball. So there is no meeting face-to-face. Why not? Total individualism. No more teams.”
Despite his lack of passion for football, Antar is aware of the formal possibilities posed by games and the highly ordered, self-contained drama of sport. With winners and losers and tactical moves, sport transposed into art might seem an obvious allegory. Aren’t there, after all, political implications to total individualism and no more teams? What meaning can be gleaned from a video that breaks the field of practice into its constituent parts, that depicts a spare, sequential exhibition of force (or grace, depending on the viewer’s own relationship to sport) in the service of nothing other than itself? Antar doesn’t belabor critical explanations or theoretical supports. “Whenever you pose your camera, you create a point of view,” he says. “That’s politics… My videos are not a document, nor [are they] a happening… There is always a performer.”
Antar’s football film is poised to conclude a quasi-historical arc that began with fellow artist Mahmoud Hojeij’s first video Once, from 1997, which poignantly dwelled on a young, bespectacled boy playing football on his own and dreaming of the future. Later, in the uproarious We Will Win: The Arab-Israeli Conflict in Eight Minutes, from 2006, Hojeii cast Antar as a character engaged in a round of leapfrog with two Israeli actors on an urban basketball court. The game degenerates into boyish foolishness and adolescent provocation as the three men alternately insult each other’s manhood and gather for group hugs. More than once, the director abandons his post behind a tripod-mounted camera to intervene. No one wins in We Will Win. Like its ongoing geopolitical referent, the game is inherently unstable, crumbling under the weight of its players’ self-interest.
Antar, who divides his time between Paris and his native Saida, a port city in Southern Lebanon, was recently lauded as someone to watch among a new generation of French talent. Centre Pompidou curator Christine Macel, writing in the pages of Flash Art, rather wincingly announced the era of Young French Artists in search of Charles Saatchi, à la française. According to Macel, these are the artists most likely to match the stature of Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno, and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster.
But Antar is also the perfect poster child for Lebanon’s postwar experimental video scene, the recent critical history of which has been the subject of exhibition catalogues, curatorial statements, and even doctoral dissertations. That scene was triggered by a number of key moments that have since taken on the gloss of nostalgia and the shimmer of myth.
One was the return to Beirut of Jayce Salloum and Walid Raad with six video cameras and a mobile editing suite. Another was the early iterations of the Ayloul Festival, defunct since 2001. Yet another was the Tuesday night discussions that eventually yielded Group Tuesday, a collective made up of Walid Sadek, Bilal Khbeiz, and Fadi Abdallah. Another still was Hojeij’s and Akram Zaatari’s 2001 Transit Visa project, which-among other achievements toward activating a homegrown critical art scene in the absence of any proper art schools or official institutions for contemporary cultural production-launched Antar’s career (he studied agricultural engineering in college). Antar turned up for a workshop, where he made a three-minute piece on assignment. The experience, he says, established all of the parameters of his vision and shaped every work he has made since.
Yet Antar’s work diverges sharply from that of his Beiruti peers. There’s no blurring between fact and fiction, little fascination with archives and documents, and zero obsessing over engagements with memory and history. No artist in Lebanon is creating video pieces as unfettered by context as Antar, and very few are as concerned with the actual codes of video as a visual language.
Antar’s works, from Wa and Tambourro (both 2004) to Mdardara and Tank You (both 2007), are sharp, compact, and precise-imagine Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” stretched out over a few judicious minutes. There are no gimmicks or tricks. In Wa, two children sing along to a synthesizer. In Tambourro, a man in the shower (the artist in fact) slaps out a beat on his chest. In Mdardara, which was shot on luscious Super 8 film, two hands (also the artist’s) barely infringe on the frame as the famed Levantine dish is prepared. Then a plastic hen hobbles into view to peck at the rice and lentils. In Tank You, a woman waits in line for gas during the siege of Lebanon in 2006. A frantic and frustrated crowd has gathered, yet the woman speaks breezily with the filmmaker. Her tank is full; she just wants to talk. It all sounds woefully simple, yet that is exactly what sets Antar’s work apart.
With any piece, he says, “I try to make it short. It is a reflection, and it should be done in very few sequences.“ Video may be easy, he adds, but the language, in his eyes, is quite restricted. It demands that one try, fail, and try again. For the football work, Antar shot a version in Saida as a practice run (the field where Al-Nejmeh plays had been damaged by a bomb blast, fallout from one in a long line of political assassinations). He placed the camera perpendicular to the players’ range of motion, so they entered from the left side of the frame, shot, and exited to the right. But the field was wrong, the shadows were wrong, and the way the players responded to the camera was wrong. A remake is in the works. “There are a lot of limitations,” Antar says. Those limitations are crucial rather than detrimental. “The ease of the video camera means one risks using video for cinematography, and that’s a mistake. I don’t use narration. I don’t capture moments. I think that art is just in front of me. How to translate it into video is the challenge. If I were to define it,” he says, “I would say I witness with some manipulation.”
The notion of ideas and material “taking shape” is integral to Shahryar Nashat’s latest single-channel video work, Plaque (Slab). When I saw it a few months back, in the Swiss artist’s Berlin studio, it was still a work in progress, an audiovisual sequence that presented a kind of truncated, nonlinear documentary about the manufacture and hoisting of a slab of concrete more than four meters long. (Think of a behind-the-scenes look at the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.) The work will be on show this winter in a spaceship-like pod designed by architect Didier Fiuza Faustino, Bureau des Mésarchitectures, at the Centre Georges Pompidou as part of a touring video program funded by Hermès.
In his final polished product, Nashat planned to incorporate such scenes as the pouring of many cubic meters of slushy, gravelly wet concrete into a steel reinforced mold (fluid action which is startlingly bodily) and the finishing of the upper surface by two laborers in a concrete plant (combining physical exertion and concentration).
Despite the slab’s enigmatic form and its literal and metaphoric weightiness, it is not really the subject of this work. In fact, this cold, abstract object was made to the artist’s specifications for no purpose other than to document its production. Seeing the video in Berlin, where it was made, activated all kinds of associations, given the abundance of prefabricated slab buildings —Plattenbau — in East Germany. Perhaps such associations were simply born of the dense and dexterous pseudo-neutrality of utilitarian concrete, the substance (next to steel and glass) that is arguably the material of built modernities, regardless of ideological persuasion.
Nashat’s original inspiration was the freeform conceptual legacy of Canadian musician and composer Glenn Gould (1932-1982). Cult figure Gould is best known for his unorthodox recordings of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (a recording of which, incidentally, is currently heading toward the edge of the solar system on the Voyager space probe). Gould was notorious for his eccentricities and his rejection of the stadium-like spectacle of the concert hall in favor of the control and editing possibilities of the recording studio, aspects dramatized in the feature film Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993).
It was Gould’s media consciousness and the way that he constructed his work and artistic image that drew Nashat’s attention in particular. So, to use a Gouldian phrase, “splendidly spliced” into Nashat’s video are a series of sixty-four stills of the legend taken from a 1969 televised concert. At the same time, we hear an excerpt of Gould playing Bach’s “Toccata in C minor” — a pivotal composition-on another occasion a decade later. Nashat’s choppy stop-action animation works like a visual deconstruction of the performance, isolating Gould’s mannerisms and postures like moments in a dance. Absurdly, the soundstage for Gould’s concert featured a number of vertical fake marbled panels-shorthand signifiers of bourgeois culture and grandeur. The droll twist of Nashat’s work is that these fake elements inspired the very real concrete slab his video employs. As the toccata unfolds, the concrete sets. The intertwined audio sources are punctuated by visual hard-cuts; we’re left with sublime Bach ringing in our ears and the slab flying out toward us.
In previous works, Nashat has similarly brought together unlikely if not oppositional components. Some have involved tense situations in classically high-culture locations like the Louvre, a theater, and Mussolini’s fascist EUR exhibition grounds on the outskirts of Rome. Typically Nashat has emphasized the artificiality of his work through precise cinematic framing and composition, meticulously dubbed soundtracks, skewed deadpan acting, elusive dialogue, and the occasional odd scenario. Often these elements have summoned power and paranoia; in a number of works, palpable tension has pervaded, along with an extra layer of unspoken “knowing” manifested as homoeroticism (which acts not so much to infuse the works with either identity or desire as to further complicate, even destabilize, the scenes).
In Plaque the camera lingers inexplicably on the arms and faces of handsome laborers. Nashat has suggested that his new work is a kind of “translation between different visual languages, raising questions as to the import and place of medium.” For this artist, it seems video works are as much about how they are put together as what you finally see or hear. This wordless Plaque suggests meaning is a sculptural construction site, where it is perhaps better to peer into the wet concrete than worship at the monolith.
In his 1995 book Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs & European Renegadoes, the essayist Peter Lamborn Wilson charted the emergence of a number of buccaneer-run micronations in seventeenth century North Africa, Temporary Autonomous Zones peopled by exiled Spanish Moors and European Christians who renounced the Roman Church in favor of the freedoms offered by Islam. Describing the Bou Regreg Republic (established in 1627 in present-day Morocco) as the world’s first truly democratic settlement, Wilson presented a radical rewriting of political history, one in which the supposed bad guys, with their strange laws, their alien religion, their extraterrestrial life on the ocean wave, dream the most beautiful of dreams.
Although Bou Regreg and its counterparts were fleeting, largely forgotten instances of human self-organization, something of their spirit nevertheless survived in the fictionalized, and often just plain fictional, corsair communities (all of them notably non-Islamic) described in texts ranging from Daniel Defoe’s A General History of the Pyrates (1724) to William Burroughs’s novel Ghost of Chance (1991), from China Miéville’s “new weird” sci-fi epic The Scar (2002) to Disney’s woeful Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007). The conventionally disparate concepts of piracy and utopia embrace, then, in the afterlife of literary and cinematic fantasy.
Most of today’s pirates are not bearded seafarers but sebum-slicked adolescents, and the closest thing they get to a utopian space is an online BitTorrent hub. This shift from the romantic to the domestic, from the cutlass to the computer mouse, informed an early work by the French artist Saâdane Afif, entitled Pirate’s Who’s Who (2000-2004). Afif presented the purchasers of the piece’s six editions with an undulating, glitter-spangled Ron Arad Lovely Rita bookshelf and a contract stipulating that they must fill it with volumes about buccaneers.
We might read Pirate’s Who’s Who as a participatory project in the tradition of the set of artistic practices identified in Nicholas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics, but this would be to mistake the approach of one generation for another, and to ignore the piece’s whisper of aggression. The contract served to double up the authorship of a given edition, with all the nods at plurality and polyphony that that implies, but the power relationship it set up was, ultimately, not that between skull-and-crossbones-waving brothers in arms, but something like that between captain and crew. Afif’s work forced collectors back on their own artistry, their ability to stack their shelves with titles that exhibit insight and wit. (Did any of them, I wonder, adorn their Lovely Rita with Wilson’s book?)
This, with the knowledge that there were five other iterations of the work out there, was a potential cause for anxiety — who would want to be responsible for shipwrecking Pirate’s Who’s Who on the shores of a flaccid imagination or shabby research skills? And yet, suffering through this anxiety was surely worth it for the chance it offered the collector to transform an edition into a one-off work, with the increase in value and aurific glow that would flow from that. Running through the project (or, perhaps, lapping over it like an encroaching tide) was the question of who was being pirated. Arad? Afif? The collector? The authors of the books he or she would select? Each of these was a potential victim; each was in his own way a corsair. Afif connected them in a matrix of appropriation and complicity, a brine-washed blurring of who’s who.
A list of facts about Afif might mention that he was born in France in 1970 of Algerian heritage; that he studied at l'Ecole Régionale des Beaux-Arts de Nantes; that he lives and works in Berlin; that he’s currently number 848 in artfacts.net’s wrong-hearted but weirdly compelling ranking of the world’s artists; and that in 2007 he was featured in thirteen-odd group shows, from the minuscule (my own Handsome Young Doctor at Cubitt, London) to the monumental (Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack’s Documenta 12). These kinds of facts, though, only get us so far, and to really evoke Afif, one might be better off sailing through considerably more subjective waters.
In an early catalogue essay, the Scottish artist John Beagles wrote, “On first meeting Saâdane… he was wearing worn out trainers, just like me…. I instantly liked him.” Similarly, following a night drinking with Afif during the 2006 Berlin Biennale, my best mate, a male model and fashion magazine editor, described Afif as possessing “that ugly-handsome, frayed-around-the-edges sexiness thing only guys in French movies can really pull off. His girlfriend’s super-hot, too.” More recently, a young French curator solemnly told me that “he is the next step. Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno, they are the 90s. Saâdane belongs to now — to us.”
To this mix of personal first impressions and professional attempts at historicization, I’d add that what is exciting about Afif’s work is that he doesn’t employ participation as a megaphone through which to prate about wooly notions of democracy, but rather as a motor to generate moments of intensity, surprise, and delight. To me, his spirit is perhaps best summed up by his installation Sublime (2004), a great arrow that pointed toward the pin-pricked cosmos. You could almost imagine it as a cigarette brandished to illustrate a point in the best barroom chat you’ve ever had (the tall, skinny-limbed Afif is an aesthetically superb smoker), a hot-tipped symbol of conviviality and conversational collaboration that might, if everybody around the table dreamed hard enough, become a new star in the sky. Some early text works, produced around the millennium: the words SILENCE IS SEXY, ISN’T IT? (the title of a 2000 album by Berlin noise music band Einstürzende Neubauten, opened up to question); WORLD IS BEAUTIFUL AND SAD, ISN’T IT? (Saâd, we should note, is Afif’s nickname); and REVOLUTION IS NOT A PICNIC, IS IT? (a reference, perhaps, to Yasser Arafat’s 1974 declaration that “we are not on a picnic, we are in the midst of a revolution”), all daubed in glitter paint on whitewashed gallery interiors. The words RESTORE HOPE, the name of a 1992-1993 US military operation in Somalia, printed on a T-shirt worn by the artist on the cover of French music and culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles. And the words RICCHI O POVERI, BELLI O BRUTTI, TUTTI UGUALI NELLA TOMBA (rich or poor, beautiful or ugly, all are equal in the grave), a popular West African saying, translated into Italian and sprayed onto a wall in Turin.
What connected these phrases, besides the fact that they’re fun to roll off the tongue, was both the fact that they had been quoted, or sampled, and that as a string of mute letters rather than sounds their meaning was liable to mutate. Reading them, we got to thinking that maybe silence isn’t sexy, or that revolution might just be a picnic after all. The doublespeak of the US high command became a protest in favor of a better world, and an egalitarian maxim took on a tone of menace and threat. These works raised questions about who owns language, what hopes borrowing or stealing it hold, and what might be achieved with a subtle change of inflection or a transposition from one site to another. In Afif’s practice words (and images, and ideas) aren’t stable things; they’re in a permanent state of flux.
Afif’s A.A (conversation) (2002) was a white neon wall piece in the shape of a single schematic flower straining upward from a rhomboid pot, copied from a drawing made by his father. Afif’s father, for his part, had based his drawing on what he suspected was the first work of art he ever encountered, an image painted on the walls of the grim Algerian sanatorium where he spent a childhood convalescence. Two types of loss were in operation in this piece — the decay of memory, and the decay of an artwork’s aura through the process of reproduction. A.A (conversation) reversed them both. Surrounded by a corona of white light like a Kirlian photograph, an angel, or the most benign of ghosts, his neon flower enacted the apotheosis of the work his father saw so many years ago-enriching its recollection and upgrading it from the status of folk image into the rarefied realm of fine art. Piracy, here, was a family business, geared toward the generation and endowment of a fugitive type of wealth.
For his 2005 exhibition Lyrics: A Luminous Show of Time for a Sung Retrospective at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, Afif brought together a series of artworks he made for the shows Melancholic Beat in Essen, Down at the Rock and Roll Club at the Moscow Biennale, and One Million BPM at the Centre d'Art Cimaises et Portiques, in a kind of best-of compilation. For each of those exhibitions, the artist had invited a writer (Lili Reynaud-Dewar for Essen, myself for Moscow, and Mick Peter for Albi) to put together lyrics for a set of preconceived installation pieces that were displayed alongside the works as vinyl wall texts, and asked various musicians (Tujiko Noriko and Portradium, Marcelline Delbecq and Rainier Lericolais, and North) to compose a set of songs based on the writer’s words, which were played on headphones in the gallery space and released as a CD in commercial music outlets.
More contracts then, more interpretation and reinterpretation, but what was really interesting was not the cold facts of a shift in authorship or medium, or his work’s slow march from the museum to record shop shelves-something that involved the translation of a unique object into a mass-produced one, and a move from an elite to a popular cultural habitat-but the grain of the relationship between artwork, libretto, and score. All authors involved in the Lyrics project had at some point to cede their authority to another; all had to anticipate the possible mistranslation of their creation, or accept that they must work according to somebody else’s rules. For example, when Afif created a resin cast of a classical statue sawn into pieces and suspended from an Alexander Calder-like mobile for Laocoon (2005), he could not have predicted that Peter would have responded to it with the words:
THREE HOLES IN THE HAT BRIM
WHERE BULLETS PASS
THOUGH WHERE’S THE HARM
WHEN YOU POSSESS SOMETHING
AND IT’S MADE BEAUTIFUL AGAIN?
And neither could Peter have predicted the nature of their musical rendering by North.
If these serial acts of translation risked a loss of form or of meaning, what endured was an economy of trust. An obvious parallel existed between the writers’ and musicians’ commentaries and the explanatory wall texts and audio guides available in major art institutions. Afif has long been concerned with the temporal, physical, and textual “supports” of a museum show, as works employing gallery furniture-such as his Memory of Fire (2004) and his staging in Hours (2005) of the time-code of the exhibition through his installation of a solar clock formed from sixty rock concert projectors at the Moscow Biennale-attest. But while most wall texts and audio guides are by their nature dogmatic and given to all sorts of problematic assumptions about the viewer, Afif’s decision to ask his collaborators to transcribe his work in words and sounds pointed to an almost infinite set of freedoms.
When I responded to his Ghost (2005) [a faux André Cadere (1934-78) Barres de Bois, in which the rainbow colors of the Polish artist’s iconic handheld staffs were replaced with a selection of subtly differentiated whites] with the following words:
I’M NOT SURE YOU WANT ME HERE
WEARING YOUR WORN, FAMILIAR CLOTHES
WELL, HERE I AM
THE HOLE IN YOUR ARGUMENT
THAT’S THE WHOLE OF MY ARGUMENT
AND I’VE NOTHING ELSE TO WEAR
What was offered up to the viewer was not an authoritative reading of the piece, but rather an affirmation of the fact that a work of art can never be exhausted by interpretation, and that every soul will remake it anew.
At the recent Documenta 12, Afif presented Black Chords Play Lyrics (2007), a work that translated the Lyrics project through his Power Chords (2005), first shown at the 2005 Lyon Biennale. Power Chords consisted of eleven white electric guitars propped up on stands that, with the aid of a computer program and rotating Perspex discs placed across their strings, seemed to be strumming themselves. The music they performed was arrived at by the artist through matching each of the colors in Cadere’s Barres de Bois to a “money chord” used by rock musicians, which is to say the popular chord progressions that cause fans to really lose it in the mosh pit and drivers in drab, Northern European towns to gun their cars like they’re speeding down Ocean Drive.
By “playing” these staffs — mobile works of art that Cadere would place, often uninvited and unwelcome, in other people’s shows — Afif embroiled the senior artist in an unbidden collaboration and transubstantiated the gritty irritant of his practice into pearly pop. The effect was not to neuter Cadere, but rather to socialize him, and to imagine a world in which his critique of the concept of the exhibition, something he saw as a microcosm of wider systems of taxonomy and control, might play to whooping, stadium-sized crowds. (“Good evening Basel; I’m Andre Cadere, and I’m here to rock the motherloving white cube!”)
Black Chords Play Lyrics exchanged the white guitars of Power Chords for black ones, and Afif’s scoring of Cadere’s work with a musical transcription of the words written for the Lyrics project, which itself alluded to the Barres de Bois in the piece Ghost. What the artist set in motion at Documenta was a dense compacting of his recent oeuvre (it’s no accident that the color of the guitars recalled the result of an imploded white dwarf star, a black hole), in which cause and effect were shuffled, and it was impossible to tell which element was riffing on which or, for that matter, the sequence in which one collaborator passed the baton on to another-nobody, here, plucked at the guitars’ strings. Creative genealogies were erased, and the “retrospective exhibition” of the Lyrics project became a thing that belonged to right here, right now.
It is often said that a perfect pop song is one that makes you feel like you’ve known it forever on the first occasion that you hear it. Afif’s work — with its perpetual transformations, its way with freedom, beauty, and surprise-achieves something similar. Not a pirate’s sea-shanty, then, but rather the brilliant pop art of “Baby One More Time.”
I would like to say I have been moved by some war memorials in Central London but can only say for certain that I have moved by them. By way of the No 8 bus, which goes from Victoria Station to the East End, I have gone whirling past a collection of statues at Hyde Park Corner. I sit on the top deck, with tourists and hoodies and Somalis and Poles. The sharp turn of the bus lurching through a roundabout approximates a swoon.
With neck craned, I see the ferocious snarl of horses reacting to the demands of an invisible master; a serene woman presides over the chariot. In one hand she holds aloft a wreath. Speed does not allow an easy translation of her attributes. Is she Britannia? Some Anglo-Valkyrie? Later I learn that this is a quadriga, sister to those that guard the Brandenburg Gate and Arc de Triomphe, and the woman is identified, alternately, as Victory, Fama, or Peace. The four horses writhe under her command, their manes flick into terrible shapes, snorts cracking through bronze hides.
The quadriga, or Peace Descending on the Chariot of War, stands not at ground level, nor even atop a modest base. She is perched at the peak of the Wellington Arch. She is descending on us. It all happens so quickly, the bus going round, Peace galloping not through but down from this gateway built to celebrate the English victor of Waterloo. Peace and her four horses began their descent in 1912, replacing a statue of Wellington that had been removed to Aldershot, a London suburb that is also a major military base.
But Peace came at a bad time. War made it there first. In front of the Wellington Arch, more or less directly in the quadriga’s path, is the monument to those men of the Royal Regiment of Artillery lost in World War I. There are four of them, too, guarding the crypt at each of the points of the compass. But from the bus I do not know this. It is just the monument with the dead soldier and the winged soldier. On one side of the sepulchral plinth is a soldier who has fallen in battle. He falls just as the bus rounds the bend: the stone is his cooling board, his greatcoat is a shroud drawn over his face and torso, the helmet on his chest is equipment for the underworld. The winged soldier wears a cape and leans against the wall with outstretched arms; the cape makes him appear as though he is about to take flight. But where Peace and her horses seem engaged in a race, this soldier is entirely without momentum. His wings are cruciform, he is braced against the wall, his chin droops down to his chest.
After noticing these soldiers from the bus, I later went back to see the other two figures. The third in the group stands stolid as a sentinel, feet planted firm. The fourth is shown reading letters from home. Together these men are meant to represent the realities of war. Wrapped around the sides of the base are the names of the places where the men of the Royal Artillery fought and fell: Mesopotamia. Arabia. India. Russia. Palestine. Central Asia. Persia. Africa. Dardanelles. Macedonia.
These place names tell us very little. They cannot pull the drapes from the faces of the dead. The names of certain battlefields tell their own story, of course, like Waterloo (the word itself an agreement between ourselves and history, a destiny conveyed by the name of a marshy plain). But I passed these monuments in ignorance, and I did not come away with a particular tribute to a particular heroism. From the bus window I thought the soldiers and the lady on the chariot were part of the same monument, time collapsed by the memory of all wars.
Indeed, here is victory, here is death. They cancel each other out at the very moment each makes the other possible. Victory’s triumph is the triumph of death. It seems only fitting that the angel of the quadriga is known by three monikers — Peace, Victory, Fame — all aliases to conceal her true name.
My first reaction to this was predictable. We feel we should protest. Something about the grossness of the display. Something about the extravagances of the state. Something about the indignity of death. All half-formed and general, in order to escape the fully-formed and specific and somehow unacceptable feeling that persists while staring out the window rounding Hyde Park Corner, while copying down names of brigades on pillars at the entrance to the Euston railway, reading the names of railway workers engraved high on a marble wall at Liverpool Street Station next to the McDonald’s. To the Glory of God and In Sacred Memory of… we want to revile this prostration, condemn it, blast it open with dynamite.
This sense of repulsion is reactionary, because we actually want to be a part of it, to know it, to undo the mystery sealed in the stone. At the foot of a monument, we are asked to remember something we do not, cannot, know. The operation is vague but compelling and in this resembles that most vague and compelling of experiences: one’s own death. By this we are yoked to the cause. A brand of pity and sorrow arises. It is pity for ourselves: for having been born at all and for not remembering it; for being creatures who will die and not remember that.
On American Independence Day, 2005, the German firm Kärcher, which styles itself the “world’s leading provider of cleaning systems,” began the three-week project to remove lichen, moss, and other organic stains that could cause “bio-corrosion” from the monumental faces of the American presidents on Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Kärcher, whose large-scale projects include the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, the statue of Jesus in Rio de Janeiro, and the Colossi of Memnon in Luxor, was founded in 1935 and currently provides multipurpose nuclear, biological, and chemical decontamination systems to the Pentagon. Kärcher also developed the pressurized water trucks that drive around French cities removing graffiti, leading then–Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy to remark, during the 2005 riots in immigrant neighborhoods in Paris, that rioters ought to be “Kärcherized.”
My little sister Sarah got married when she was seventeen.
I expressed some doubts to my mother. She defended my sister’s decision. “Honey, your sister is on a different path. She’s always wanted a home and family. You want glory and riches.” I was hurt at the time, but I have since decided that it was not a judgment, merely a statement of fact.
Being half American and half Qatari my sister and I are very lucky to have had so many paths to choose from.
If you ask my littlest sister El-Bendari what she wants to do when she grows up, she will tell you without hesitation: marry a boy from our tribe. El-Bendari is five years old this year. Already she has decided that her wedding will be the high point of her life, the funnest and best thing there is. El-Bendari wants a wedding, not a Shetland pony or a career in finance.
There are no astronauts or doctors in my family.
As teenagers, my Qatari cousins and I spent most of our time knee-deep in discussions about our weddings, drawing designs for fantasy gowns and tossing coins over which no-good cousin we’d end up marrying.
I was officially understood to be betrothed to my eldest uncle’s eldest son. I discovered this the first time I came to Qatar by myself. My uncle took me aside for a chitchat. “You know, you are going to need to get married one day,” he said, “and your choices are — my son Amer Jaber.” I was the oldest daughter of my father, Amer Jaber was the oldest son of my father’s older brother; it made sense. Later I confronted my father. Was I really betrothed to my cousin? “Well, yeah, kind of,” he said. “We always match up that way, as long as your blood is compatible.”
My beloved presumptive, Amer Jaber Al-Marri, was known to everyone in the family as Godzilla. I sometimes imagined (not without pleasure) a King Kong–type scenario in which Godzilla clutched me in his chubby fist as I channeled Fay Ray in my black abaya. He squeezed me with his sausage claws as he swatted buzzing helicopters out of the Doha skyline. I had a great view, but I didn’t marry Godzilla. His father, my uncle, a powerful local imam, became impatient.
Godzilla ended up with my cousin Moza.
I worried about them. Godzilla was clearly going to be a lot to handle. I had always liked him well enough, mostly because he was in possession of what seemed to be the only (pirated, of course) English copies of The Smurfs in all of Doha, or at least our tiny corner of it. But his VHS collection did not stop with the Smurfs. One time I peeked into the salah at my uncle’s house to find Godzilla and his brothers watching a video of women practicing all-nude calisthenics before a hairy man in a jumpsuit. I think it was called Gym Nasty, though perhaps I am making that up. But Godzilla definitely had a reputation as the town perv.
I danced at their wedding with extra abandon, having dodged the fastest bullet of my young, eligible life. But everyone knew it was supposed to be me looking elated and nervous and miserable in a spumescent white dress. Only later did it occur to me that each dramatic swerve and hair-flip generated gossip about poor terrified Moza.
Sure indications that a wedding is imminent are the squeals of pain ripping through the cement houses of the lucky bridal family. A shrill female howl of “M-Hagg-Sanaa!” means the halawa lady has arrived.
“Halawa” means sweet. The sweet is a golden glop of boiled sugar water the consistency of thick honey. When the halawa lady rolls in, agitated and late, neighbors in their droves descend on the bride’s house, hoping to get a wax, too. The lucky lady comes first, though, and her waxing is extra-sweet: for her wedding she is allowed her first-ever full-body wax. This takes place offstage, in a side room, with the door locked and the key hidden. But the screams make it exciting for everyone. As do the probing questions from the halawa lady, when it is your turn: “So, are you getting married?” And if that answer is negative, an implied “Then who are you doing this for?” buffeted with a harrumph.
Nowadays some girls do a certain amount of auto-depilation with razors, but this is still controversial. When I moved to Qatar I brought a pink Bic razor with me from Washington and promptly caused a scandal. My grandmother made me take it out of the bathroom and hide it. (Who was I doing this for, indeed.)
After the halawa, the bride has to get the henna. Usually the henna lady is different from the halawa lady. And there are different styles of henna. North African henna is geometrical and closely resembles fish bones. Indian henna is darker (if you mix the henna paste with lemon, it gets dark) and has feathery motifs, like peacocks. Gulfi henna is more rounded and organic. There must be no hint of an image, so it tends to be more floral.
For her wedding the bride gets the whole deal: head and shoulders, knees and toes, all the way up her thighs, like stockings. Her sisters and cousins get hands and arms and sometimes, more recently, an American-style tramp stamp on the lower back. When we talk about our weddings, we are only barely talking about our marriages. The marriage ceremony is a modest affair that usually takes place in the home of the bride, so she doesn’t have to move. It is essentially the signing of a contract, witnessed by family members, sometimes with an imam present but usually not. Tea is served, and cookies. The last marriage I attended was for my stepmother’s brother. Sweetly he brought his bride a pair of lovebirds in a cage, but the poor little budgies died a week later.
When we talk about our weddings, we are mostly talking about the parties. The dueling receptions, male and female. Usually there are two tents set up next to each other on one of the huge swatches of empty lot near where we live. Sometimes they take place at a wedding hall. My sisters dream of having theirs at the Sheraton or the Four Seasons, the men and women in separate air-conditioned ballrooms. But we have never been to such a wedding.
The best wedding I ever went to involved a whole baby lamb splayed out over a hill of rice. The lamb still had its eyes. Out of its back rose a tier of trays with condiments: yogurt, pickles, pepper, salt. The meat was buttery, butter soft; you tore pieces you wanted off with your hands. Usually the food at weddings is disgusting. Gahawah: yellow coffee made from unroasted beans with lots of cardamom. Sour grape leaves. Tasteless rice in hillocky clumps. Cellophane-wrapped wedding favors with shriveled pistachios and sugared almonds in nougat, which sometimes breed tiny worms. Plasticine fruit tarts.
But El-Bendari loves wedding food, especially the tarts. She loves everything about weddings, lives for them, though she won’t be allowed to dance until she’s a teenager. My five-year-old sister’s thoughts about weddings aren’t so very different from those of the eager old women who array themselves about the stage at the women’s tent. A child has the same voyeurial lusts as a widow, we just don’t call them lusts yet. On wedding nights my sister stays awake long after the bride has bid the party goodnight, watching from our grandmother’s lap as the older girls display their tail feathers. This is the main event: nervous virgins and divorcees take their places on a catwalk that is at once auction house, runway, soundstage, and wilderness. Black-robed mothers of marriageable sons move in close in anticipation.
Each eligible girl clambers onto the stage and is announced by the wedding singers, who are always Sudanese. The singers are called daghagat, and they play drums and sing into battered microphones, feedback issuing from the cheap speakers. All the songs sound kind of the same, and yet people have favorites. I have a favorite, but I have no idea what it says or how to ask for it, as the words are almost unintelligible through all the static.
The serious matchmaking happens after dinner, after the bride has been whisked away by the groom and his family. (When the groom comes everyone covers back up and the newly amalgamated family dances around together, the mother of the bride throwing riyals in the air, on her daughter, or on herself, depending on which way the wind is blowing.) Earlier in the night is when the “practice girls” dance, girls who are not especially eligible, or do not wish to be taken seriously. I always dance early, to the consternation of my grandmother.
The female hemisphere of the wedding party is always well lit and bustling long after the men say goodnight. Flesh bursts the seams of silk dresses; the party bursts the woolen tent. The goat-hair flaps can barely shield their glittering secret from the lazy male gazes that peer out from behind the headlights of idling Land Cruisers. It’s a feast for the eyes, all the lacy borders and receding hemlines.
If you were to whip out a camera in the middle of a wedding, the done-up dolls of Doha and their honor-obsessed mothers would gore you quite mercilessly. Security would be called, your film torn out, your memory card burned with a hot incense coal. When I was little there were no photographs at all; the bride had to go to a photography studio, where a woman whose job it was to do so made sure that no one did anything funny with the negatives. These days there are official wedding photographers, usually Filipino ladies. There are no group photos. After the photographer has finished with the bride, unmarried girls swarm to get their picture taken, something to send to their secret cellphone boyfriends.
Last February, before being frisked by the stern security mama at the entrance to my cousin Jameela’s wedding, I slipped my palm-sized digital camera into my underpants. Over the last five years, my family’s wedding festivities have grown grander, more flamboyant, and more revealing, while my shrinking camera phone has become nearly undetectable. I’d smuggled it countless times before, always to good effect. Sometimes the most perceptive girls would pull me behind the stage and ask to be photographed in awkward glamour-shot poses (pinky finger under chin or head cocked into plastic rosebush). After all, my photographs were free, while the Filipino photographers charge five riyals a pop! But this time I felt an unfamiliar twinge of guilt as I aimed my Pentax camera lens out from under the arm of my abaya at a trio of unsuspecting second cousins.
Each of them was resplendent in carefully chosen colors. Afra swayed back and forth in a beaded tunic that quit mid-thigh and rained glass droplets down to her French pedicured toes. Abrar lounged in a golden tiger number, striped spandex stretched taut over her arms into fingerless gloves. Abtihal, who was turning out to be the belle of the ball, stood tall and slim, her torso and hair littered with crumpled purple ribbon rosettes, misted with lilac scent. All three were wearing colored contacts (blue, yellow, purple) and deep red henna all the way up their arms. I had to suppress an awe-filled sigh at their finery. I photographed them as they commented sardonically on the young and unmarried unsheathing themselves for the delectation of the shrouded older women.
As she stood between her sisters, I noticed that Abtihal had an unusual glow about her festooned head. Just as the strangeness registered, her violet eyes flashed an unfamiliar warning — she’d spotted the metallic gleam of my camera. We all used to laugh at the ugly girls who made such a fuss about the stray snapshots that sometimes circulated around the tribe. Now, suddenly, Abtihal stood there, petrified, stock-still as her sisters gesticulated around her. Meanwhile, shameless in the tall grass, I poached the pristine reputation of my beautiful cousin with every snap.
But every photograph I took of her was inexplicably blurry.
A few weeks later I learned that Abtihal had gotten engaged to our cousin Dheeb (Arabic for “wolf”) that very night. This news explained both her glow and the imperceptible twitching revealed by my photographs. Full to the brim with promises, Abtihal was too bright for me to capture. Lashed to her dignity by the braided ropes of fate, she had been petrified of being photographed and risking the honor of her new family. The official photos of my cousin Jameela and her sisters folded neatly into a pocket-sized memory book from the Al Saad Ladies Photography Company. The bride’s mother took me aside recently to show me the album. Her daughter is unrecognizable behind layers of white foundation and raver-girl glitter. The bride’s face is further masked by the romantic sheen that has been airbrushed on by the professional photographers; I swear the curve of her smile is artificial. In the cover photo, Jameela squints out of a heart-shaped cutout. She almost looks like she’s crying through the Gaussian blur. My aunt dismisses the tears with a wave. “Her eyes were watering from the huge lights — we were lucky her mascara didn’t run.”
As she beams down at the collection of her daughter’s “memories,” she confides in me how happy she is that her daughter’s new husband loves her so much. She tells me about how on the wedding night, as they prepared to leave, the groom removed Jameela’s rhinestone necklace and kissed her powdered neck. “Such tenderness was proof!” she exclaimed. “He loves her so much!”
I wonder briefly about my aunt, her marriage to my uncle. We flip through the rest of the photos.
My aunt sighs again and mumbles something about the Allah-given gift of love. “Aagbalish,” she whispers, giving me a matronly squeeze. “You’ll be next.”
Maybe. But probably not. I don’t know what I did to deserve it, but I no longer seem to be attracting suitors (or rather, their mothers). I have been to scores of weddings by now, and I know when I’m not welcome on a dais.
The first time I danced at a wedding I was fourteen years old and wearing a red Chinese dress with a shocking slit up the leg. My hair was tied back into Chun-Li style buns, so I couldn’t do any of the “sexy” figure-eight-style hair-flipping moves I had practiced at home with my cousins. Thus restrained, I resorted to a mixture of Egyptian-style belly dance and Midwestern clod-hopping. The mothers-with-sons who lined the stage clapped and squawked in their hoarse gravelly voices, “The American dances!” At first I felt embarrassed to be introduced as “the dancing American” instead of “Safya! Daughter of Mohamed,"or "Safya! Granddaughter of Amer!” But when my father heard about my debut, on the other side of the tent, he seemed proud. Which in turn made me feel triumphant despite my humiliation.
I realized that this was what weddings were for: generating gossip and cultivating infamy.
The Institute of Naturopathy and Yogic Sciences occupies some seventy acres of farmland on the outskirts of Bangalore. Innocent eyes might see the luxuriant foliage, the palm-fringed lake, and the swimming pool and conclude that the institute is a resort. As it happens, it’s a hospital, albeit a curious one, where the rooms range from duplex cottages with forty-two-inch plasma televisions to dormitories for the poor, and where the resident doctors combine advanced training in Western medicine with complete disdain for it. The institute reminds pleasure-seekers and weight-losers alike that it only admits patients with “treatable and acute diseases.” Stern as this sounds, the institute’s mission is, in fact, to acquaint a well-heeled clientele with the healing powers of nature. There is a conventional hospital on the premises, too, a shabby building facing the main road that donates medicines to the “lower middle classes,” to which institute guests are forbidden entry.
Nothing unusual, really, in a country where alternative medicine is anything but. My very first memory of medicine is that it tasted great. This was back in the 1970s, during the Theosophical Society’s last great hurrah, when educated people consulted faith healers. Medicine meant little white sugar-balls, shampoo was shikakai powder, a fever was treated with a cold compress, and exercise was yoga. Every so often, my mother would hold my nose and put some mysterious viscous fluid down my throat. It was never clear what it was supposed to do, but mysterious viscous fluids were usually certified by the Arya Vaidya Pharmacy, and we always assumed the best.
That alternative medicine continues to be mainstream even as India has become a powerhouse of mainstream medicine is a charming contradiction. (Médecins Sans Frontiéres recently called India’s generics industry the “pharmacy of the developing world.”) In keeping with its significance, alt med commandeers an entire department at the Ministry of Health: the Department of Ayurveda, Yoga, Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy. I remember when holistic concoctions came in grim brown bottles sold by grim brown cooperatives. Now they’re known as “fast-moving consumer goods” and available in splashy plastic packaging on supermarket shelves.
The institute — or Jindal, as it is generally known, after its founder, S R Jindal, and his eponymous steel conglomerate — is something of a national legend. Since it opened its doors in 1979, every famous and/or fat person in India has been to Jindal or tried and failed to get in. On arrival, patients are greeted by Jindal’s naturopathic philosophy, jagged rhymes splayed across an enormous signboard that dominates the lobby:
Look at your wonderful achievement, o! Modern man of flying colors! The gigantic synthetic tree you have grown has no leaves, no flowers. The monster is only capable of giving capsules and tablets as fruits, But who can help you if you insist that’s what suits?
Having allowed the inner power of your soul to die with a shrug, You cannot think of any thing other than the synthetic drug. Mindlessly aspiring to transcend yourself with harmful medication, Aren’t you sitting under a tree which is resting on a black, bottomless ocean?
Such snippets of solipsistic caution pop up around every corner at Jindal. Posters in the lobby, wooden signs hammered to trees, miniature billboards planted on the grass, and handouts on appropriate womanly behavior: all express the same set of sentiments, from “A silent man is a wise man” to “More people die from eating too much than too little.”
Jingoistic, moralistic, vegetarian, and cosmic, Jindal seemed to have been specially designed to annoy me. And yet it doesn’t. I have been pumped, drained, prodded, shrived, and mapped, and I would do it again. I’m a believer.
My conversion was a long time coming. I made my first trips to the institute as a boy, escorting various aunts through the Jindal experience. They came from Bombay and Delhi and Vishakapatnam, gregarious and overweight, eager and apprehensive. Two weeks later, they would emerge broken but definitely unbowed, desperate to get back to their dosas, whiskies, and cigarettes.
I went as a man and suffered a similar fate. But I always knew I would go back. I hated myself for failing and retained a kind of Victorian horror at the state of my body, long after I shed my baby fat. (The lessons of a childhood answering to “Fatty” are difficult to unlearn.) Besides, the ideal South Indian Brahmin achieves his perfect body not by lifting weights or cutting carbs, but by acquiring vast reserves of inner power. He is soft, not taut; lean, but never muscular. Most crucially, he understands that the greatest glory is renunciation, that the best-lived life is a life hardly lived at all.
I am, sadly, one of those “modern men of flying colors,” and austerity has never come naturally to me. So it was with considerable trepidation that I returned to Jindal this July. I tried not to think about it. A few days into the introductory “non-starvation” diet, I nearly lost the capacity for abstract thought altogether. I was allotted one hundred grams of boiled bean sprouts, a spoonful of steamed garlic, and four slices of two kinds of fruit. Inevitably, I could think of nothing but real food. I fanatically recounted my favorite recipes to equally fanatical strangers. They told me about their excreta. We all scrutinized the serving staff, hoping to exploit any lapse of vigilance. One evening, a thin, heavily made-up woman collapsed quietly at my table. She was removed and I never saw her again.
On the third day I went over to “starvation.” In theory, this is a strictly rationed liquid diet, though the liquids room, unlike the rest of the place, is virtually unsupervised, which offers the possibility to pursue all kinds of gluttony. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of liquids, horrid and nice. The horrids include strained pulp of aloe, tulsi water, and asafoetida tea; nice ones include mango juice, buttermilk, and tender-coconut water. Most people with horrid liquids on their prescription calmly substitute something nice. I for one discovered that several glasses of fruit juice chased by hot milk and jaggery can feel like a meal. I found it oddly comforting. What had driven me to delirium before was the broken promise of chewable food, not its absence.
There was still plenty of absence, however. No cigarettes, no alcohol, no outside food, no medicines, no laptops, no visitors, no sex. Even the double rooms have two single beds bolted to the floor. No one is allowed to leave the well-guarded premises. Spot checks are carried out daily to ensure compliance, and everyone is equal before Jindal’s naturopathic wrath. The politician who paid the cleaning lady Rs 400 to smuggle in a cup of tea is derided by name in the welcome pamphlet; a couple who were caught eating papayas they had plucked off a tree during the evening walk were tossed out immediately. The story of their perfidy lives on to this day.
Jindal diary: Days begin at about 4:30am with bhajans piped into each room on closed-circuit audio. At 5:30, after the mandatory walk around the grounds and the mandatory laughing session, we begin the kriyas, a set of cleansing techniques to quicken the kundalini. First up is vaman dhauti, which translates ominously to “cleansing of the middle through penance.” Patients sit around in a circle and drink warm saline water until they puke. (The first time I faced vaman dhauti, I hesitated, fidgeting nervously with my glass. The instructor laughed. “This is not tea,” he chided, forcing my head back and pouring the brine down my throat. Moments later I was lurching and vomiting like everyone else.)
More kriyas follow, “cleansing of the throat” and “cleansing of the eyes.” The latter turns out to be quite a tender experience, like being kissed on the eyelids by tiny droplets of warm water.
The highlight of the morning, however, is an invigorating two hours of yoga, beginning at 7:30. Men and women assemble on two sides of the main hall. An instructor performs on a center stage, providing a constant stream of blandishments. The most enthusiastic win awards-motivational books by S R Jindal-while certain of us receive gentle rebukes.
At 10am, the medical portion of the treatment begins with an enema. (At Jindal, nature never calls; it is summoned). High-end patients get theirs en suite, while those in more modest accommodation have to show up at treatment headquarters tube in hand. This is the second most humiliating process at Jindal. In a tiny cubicle, one has to disrobe and lie sideways. An attendant connects one end of the tube to a tank of water fixed to the wall and the other end to one’s other end. The moment the water pressure becomes unbearably discomforting, one signals weakly, at which point the attendant removes the tube. Then, jaw and rectum set, one rolls over, fumbles with a protective towel, and dashes gingerly to the nearest loo.
The rest of the morning is for less invasive treatment. Cold mudpacks are slapped on — not to the face, of course, but to the stomach, the better to freeze the parasites (and their eggs) that hide in the large intestine causing disease, according to Jindal lore. This happens at least four times a day.
After a lunch break, it’s time for irrigation. I should admit that no matter how many times I am subjected to colonic hydrotherapy, and no matter how recently, it always comes as a shock. There are simply no words to describe the panic wrought by a mixture of salt and lime juice being pumped into one’s backside; there’s no way to convey the disturbingly pleasurable relief when said mixture is sucked back out, along with the accumulated debris of a life ill-lived. (I should also admit that the small intestine’s sensitivity to temperature and flavor is a weirdly exciting discovery.) The best part of “having a colon,” as the nurses fondly refer to it, is getting a boiled sweet afterward.
The afternoon, generally speaking, is for therapy. Patients can obtain nearly every natural cure ever devised. Eye packs, kidney packs, hot-arm-and-foot packs; hip baths, ankle baths, thigh baths; vibromassage, “jet” massage, and deluxe hydromassage; acupuncture, acupressure, and more. I’m particularly intrigued by the “energy map.” After being trussed up in diodes and anodes like a bionic man, my body is rendered in pixels, an energy score attached to every part. (“Head: left” scores very well, “head: right” comes off rather badly.) One side effect is a near-constant state of sexual alertness.
After supper, it’s time for a final euphemism, “entertainment.” One evening an especially forceful woman demonstrates a recipe for unsalted oil-free spinach cutlets. Between entertainment and bedtime there are two hours of mandatory play. There’s badminton, caroms, and table tennis; those exhausted by the day’s events can watch Indian Idol on cable television. For the insistently naturopathic, there’s an outdoor reflexology tank: pebbles immersed in alternating pools of hot and cold water to walk over. This is my favored nocturnal therapy, until S R Jindal’s wife shows up one night and has her bodyguards drive everyone out.
There are several reasons I blush when confessing I enjoyed the Jindal experience, and the corniness of it is not even the first. The library, for instance, stocks every right-wing Hindu magazine possible, from the Organiser — the official weekly publication of the fascist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — to the softer, odder Hinduism Today. The only English news magazine on the racks is the lone Indian publication that accepts “Thatcherite” as a compliment. There is that hard institutional bitterness toward the second sex. (Strategically placed pamphlets warn women against “eating in excess… because of nearness to the kitchen.”) The literature appears to conform to S R Jindal’s mindset, as evinced by his collected works-the library’s “reference section.” But not everyone who works at Jindal is a fanatic. Many of the instructors I talked to were proud Hindus in a perfectly pleasant way.
Jindal is a thoroughly confusing place, an oasis of what we might call right-wing hippiedom. Philosophically, Jindal isn’t far from Goa — from the flower children on Anjuna Beach in 1968, getting away from the craziness of the Western world to become one with nature. Except that the enthusiasts at Jindal are industrialists from India, not crusties from San Francisco.
Still, it’s worth remembering that naturopathy was born in an era of import substitution. India has never been averse to borrowing from the world and calling the results “indigenous,” and neither is Jindal. Hot-steam therapy has been on the menu at Scandinavian spas for at least the last two centuries. Homeopathy is German in origin; acupuncture comes from China. Unani is influenced by Persian Islam. Even Jindal’s colonic ministrations owe their provenance to pharaonic Egypt.
And never mind naturopathy’s cosmopolitan provenance; the idea owes its current vogue to a book, Medical Nemesis: the Expropriation of Health, by the Austrian communist and Catholic dissident Ivan Illich. One of the twentieth century’s most influential anti-modernist thinkers, Illich devoted his life to the subversion of conventional Western notions about almost everything, but especially schooling, energy, missionary work, and development. Medical Nemesis, published in 1975, capped a career of romantic longing for a simpler time. Most illnesses, he claimed, were the result of “social iatrogenesis” — that is, produced by the institutions of health care themselves.
Whatever one thinks of him today, there is no question that in his time, Illich tapped straight into the zeitgeist. The 70s saw the maturation of a radical project born in the 60s. “Power-talk” was suddenly on everyone’s lips, and a brave new left was forming. That new left is now our old left, and Illich retains enormous currency with them, at least in India. I thought there must be a relationship between Jindal and Illich, though my own trawl through the musings of the Indian steel baron didn’t yield a direct link.
Perhaps this is just so. Like it or not, naturopathy is neither left nor right. Or rather, it is both. Everybody loves natural power. It is simultaneously self-indulgent and selfless. It confirms that our ancients were ahead of their times; it puts us in touch with who we really are; it’s even good for the environment. Right-wingers get off on the self-determination of it all, the confirmation that everyone is capable of a better body and a better life, that all people need to do is get their act together. Left-wingers love the fact that it evinces, yet again, the fallibility and hypocrisy of the West. The rich acknowledge that money can’t buy everything; the poor feel better about their inability to buy things. This, then, is the enduring appeal of renunciation, the reason that “No Medicine!” has become a rallying cry of hard-line nativists and New Age cosmopolitans both; of a middle class that has popped too many pills and an underclass that can’t pop enough.
The first time I went to Jindal, I left in the same haze of anxiety I endured within. On the hour-long journey home from that first internment, I directed my auto-rickshaw driver to stop at the first restaurant we passed. Suitcase in hand, I proceeded to make up for fourteen days of missed meals. Butter chicken, parathas, masala dosas, and delicious deep-fried vadas. I was sick for weeks.
The second time was different. I left Jindal thinking I would backslide, but it just wasn’t possible. I thought I wanted to eat all those wonderful things I had been fantasizing about, but now that they were within reach, I couldn’t bring myself to touch them.
I studied myself and liked what I saw. I had lost a kilo for every day I had spent at Jindal. My body looked like it had been through a particularly successful round of plastic surgery, while my cholesterol levels had dropped dramatically. My lipid profile had never looked better. You might even say that I was lean, yet soft.
So I’ve made my peace with austerity. There remains one niggling problem, however: I can’t stand austere people. The only way out of that conundrum is to live austerely alongside the indulgent, and for that I need to cultivate still more inner power. So I’m going to spend ten days in Vipassana, a meditation camp, located conveniently near my home, where one is not allowed to eat or speak or look anyone in the eye. “In the destructive element immerse,” Conrad’s narrator advises us in Lord Jim (another lost text of homeopathy?). I’m looking forward to it.
Battles of Troy is a study of the economics of contemporary global cinema as seen through the eyes of the bottom rung of the production hierarchy: the extras.
The film considers the making of the Warner Brothers blockbuster Troy. Launched in 2004 with a budget of roughly $185 million, Troy is one of the most expensive film productions in cinema history. Its plot rehearses the story of the Trojan War as told in Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid. In the Hollywood version, Brad Pitt stars as Achilles, Eric Bana as Hector, Orlando Bloom as Paris, Diane Kruger as Helen, and Peter O’Toole as Priam.
Battles of Troy, released one year later, is a Bulgarian documentary by Krassimir Terziev that documents the making of the Hollywood film. In its way, it is nearly as epic as its subject matter, spanning six nations, displacing space and time and containing within it the greatest battle ever fought between the people of Bulgaria and Mexico.
In April of 2003, Warner Brothers begins production of Troy. With a budget of approximately $185 million, it is among the most expensive films in history.
So they said, “It’ll be in Acapulco.” They lied to us a bit then — it’ll be in Acapulco and all, so I thought, what’s the big deal, why not?
Filming begins at Shepperton, near London. Production next moves to Malta, where a Troy was erected in Fort Ricasoli. Though the main battle scenes were originally scheduled for Morocco, tensions born of the impending war in Iraq forced the production to move from Morocco to Baja California Sur, Mexico.
I had no excessive body fat; everything was fine with the muscles on my body, and perhaps I also had a face. But the face doesn’t count that much, I guess — just some thirty percent or forty percent.
We look a lot like… like those people of back then — the ancient Greeks, the Trojans, and all of the tribes.
We resemble them physically.
In Mexico, a group of 1,300 extras are to recreate the battles between 50,000 members of the Greek army and 25,000 Trojan warriors. The production team is in need of an elite group that not only possesses the physical prowess necessary to convincingly stage the battle scenes, but also has a palpably Mediterranean look. A military experts team flies to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, to conduct a casting call among 5,000 men. The perfect soldiers are recruited from the Sports Academy in Sofia. They are flown to Mexico for a three-month shooting period.
They just sit in the street and watch us, and they think, “Where did these come from, what’s this strange language they’re speaking?”
The Bulgarians are flown to Mexico for a grueling three-week training period in temperatures upward of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. They are a sensation in the local media; a radio message warns the Mexicans to guard their wives on Saturday night.
We kept trying to get a break, to get some water or find shade. But there was no shade. So we were simply sitting there, killing scorpions and all sorts of nasty centipedes. The horses were in the shade, but we weren’t. They had tents; we didn’t.
We covered ourselves with the shields and fell asleep.
The Bulgarians find they are being paid $12 a day, barely enough for living expenses, $40 less than the Mexicans are being paid, and a great deal less than the horses. The Bulgarians go on strike for three days; filming stops until they win a pay increase of $10 per day.
You see the extras go up and down, and somehow you see that point of view — the extras.
Not the movie characters. You notice the extras in the movie. I didn’t notice them before.
I only watched the lead actors as for those in the background — I didn’t care if they were there or they weren’t. They’re not even in focus. It’s the magic that’s somehow gone.
After production comes to a close in Mexico, the Bulgarians are flown back to Sofia. A few of them stay on in Mexico, two marry Americans who were vacationing in Cabo that summer. One Bulgarian extra, Alexander Iordanov, starts to study film. The Trojan horse made for the movie is given to Turkey as a present, where it continues to sit today at the site of the original Troy.
In 1966, a small group of Moroccan poets, artists, and intellectuals launched Souffles, a quarterly review that would over time become at once a vehicle for cultural renewal and an instigator of efforts to promote social justice in the Maghreb. From its very first issue, Souffles was a unique experiment, a Moroccan and Maghrebi effort to liberate the country’s intellectual framework from fetid provincialism and lingering colonial complexes. It was a cri de coeur, a rebellion against the artistic status quo, a manifesto for a new aesthetics, even a new worldview. Its trademark cover, emblazoned with an intense black sun, radiated rebellion.
A decade earlier, the French protectorate of Morocco had managed to secure its independence as a kingdom while Paris concentrated on retaining neighboring Algeria, where a war of independence was just beginning. Muhammad V, Morocco’s new king and former sultan, and the unlikely hero of the nationalist movement, began to consolidate political power against the backdrop of the Cold War. Leftists battled conservatives for control of the nationalist movement, while Crown Prince Hassan maneuvered to position himself as the ultimate political arbiter of the young country. When his father died in 1961, the prince became King Hassan II.
For Moroccan intellectuals, students, and urban workers, the Sixties were a time of massive upheaval. Thousands participated in strikes and street protests that often ended in brutal clampdowns, arrests, and torture. Leftist political leaders such as Mehdi Ben Barka (who was assassinated by the regime in 1965, probably with French and American help) built links with progressive forces abroad, including Che Guevara, Amilcar Cabral, and Malcolm X. In neighboring Algeria, in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and countless African, Asian, and Latin American countries, progressive forces were associated with socialism or communism while “reactionaries” sought the backing of the US or former colonial powers.
Into this fraught picture entered Abdellatif Laabi, founder, editor, and publisher of Souffles. The son of an illiterate saddler from Fes, Laabi, like many of his collaborators, was a member of the petite bourgeoisie — neither of the country’s elite nor cut from especially humble cloth. He had attended colonial schools and taught French. His early poems combined surrealist invective and a rage against his own uprootedness as a Moroccan who was more comfortable expressing himself in the colonial lingua franca than in Arabic. Laabi launched the inaugural issue of Souffles with this prologue:
The poets who have signed the texts in this issue-manifesto of Souffles are unanimously aware that such a publication is an assertion on their part at a time when the problems of our national culture have reached an extreme degree of tension.
The current situation does not, as some may believe, speak of a creative proliferation. The cultural agitation that individuals or organizations would like to pass off as a growth spurt of our literature is in fact the mere expression of a cultivated stagnation, of a certain number of misconceptions as to what the real sense of literary activity consists of.
Petrified contemplation of the past, sclerosis of form and content, unashamed imitation and forced borrowings, vainglorious false talents — these are the tainted daily ration with which the press, periodicals and the greed of all-too-few publishers have bored us stiff.
Not counting its multiple forms of prostitution, literature has become a form of aristocracy, a badge of honor, a manifestation of intellectual prowess and do-it-yourself attitude.
Something is afoot in Africa and in other Third-World countries. Exoticism and folklore are falling by the wayside. No one can predict where this will lead. But the day will come when the real spokespersons of these collectivities really make their voices heard, and it will be like dynamite exploding the rotten arcana of the old humanisms. Severe patience and strict self-censorship were necessary to produce this review, which sees itself first and foremost as the organ of a new poetic and literary generation._
Souffles was not created to add to the number of ephemeral reviews. It answers a need that has never ceased formulating itself around us.
That essay, like several that would follow, lashed out at the bourgeois literary salons that wallowed in nostalgia for a colonial order and its Gallic canon, which was an integral part of France’s mission civilisatrice. Although a few Moroccan writers and artists had been promoted internationally during the colonial era, they were chosen for their exotica: ochre walls and minarets, Berber tribes and ornate handicrafts — the stuff of cruise ship advertisements.
A major intellectual reference for Souffles was Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, as well as early postcolonial writers — Aimé Césaire, Mario de Andrade, and René Depestre — and journals like Présence Africaine. The art critic Abdallah Stouky would, for instance, write on “nostalgia for Negritude” (of the Senghorian variety) at the Dakar International Festival for Negro Arts in 1966, accusing the organizers of fabricating a false “negro unity” based on the European enthusiasm for “primitive arts” that had been set off half a century earlier by artists such as Pablo Picasso and Matisse. Exoticism, as Franz Fanon admirably stated, “is a form of racist simplification. From that perspective, no cultural clashes can occur. On the one side there is a culture in which qualities of dynamism, growth, and depth are recognized. A living culture that perpetually renews itself. On the other side there are characteristics, curiosities, objects — but never structures.” In a later essay, considering his own poetic evolution, Laabi would cite Fanon and other critics of colonialism, espousing their ideas as a model for his own efforts of “de-alienation and restructuration, [of] struggle against cultural domination and imperialist ideology.”
Abdelkebir Khatibi, a novelist and sociologist whom Roland Barthes would later cite as an influence, was perhaps emblematic of the concerns that ran through the pages of Souffles. An essay he penned in the journal’s third issue would eventually lead to his controversial Le Roman Maghrébin (The Maghrebi Novel). The original essay was titled “The Moroccan Novel and National Literature” and published in the summer of 1966.
Let us consider now, not the problem of literature, but that of Maghreb writers. After the second war, the first group (Feraoun, Dib, Mammeri, Sefroui…) focused on describing local society, on establishing a relatively accurate portrait of its different social strata, in other words to say “here is who we are, this is how we live.” It has been said that this literature was first and foremost a testimony of an era and of a specific situation. In a sense, this description was salutary because it was already a type of appraisal of the colonial situation. But at this very level, it was already being overtaken by events that were taking place in North Africa. For instance, at the moment when Algerians took to arms to liberate themselves through violence, novelists were busy describing the minutia of everyday life of Kabyle villages and poets were singing the anxieties of their torn personalities._
Condemned to follow a reality that is in permanent transformation, the writer faces a dilemma: if he wants to follow the evolution of this reality in a continuous manner, he becomes a journalist. If he takes too much distance, he risks ending up producing disembodied literature. At every instant, an uneasy self-awareness (“mauvaise conscience”) risks to ensnare the Maghrebi writer.
The situation has become more complicated after the Algerian war. Some writers (Haddad, Djebar, Bourboune, Kréa…) tried to put their literature in the service of the Revolution. In their way, they helped to make the Algerian problem known. Unfortunately, for the most part this literature has outrun its course, it died with the war. Now that we face enormous problems of nation-building we must ask frankly and without detours the question of literature: in countries that are in large part illiterate, that is to say where the written word has few chances for the moment to transform things, can you liberate a people with a language that they do not understand?
The debate over language continued to be at the core of the early issues of the magazine. The Soufflites were aware that publishing in French, the language they had been educated in and through which they could reach an intellectual elite (in France and elsewhere), was limiting the size and scope of their readership. Although after 1968 Souffles would develop an Arabic-language edition, Anfass, the question of language would remain paramount — and not only for the Moroccan avant-garde.
Only a decade after Morocco’s independence, Laabi wrote of the linguistic anxiety of an entire generation of middle-class Moroccans who were raised with two languages, but who too often had mastered neither. In the fourth issue of Souffles, he expounded on the problem:
Thus, it is true that the linguistic frustration of the colonized went beyond, in the colonial context, the simple coexistence of two modes of expression. It weakened the psyche of the colonized and was a weapon for the depreciation of his own culture.
At the level of this repressive phase, the linguistic dualism was a tragedy. A tragedy that has not been overcome for many intellectuals of the independence period since even the cultural structures conveyed by the new modes of education and the improvised experience of arabization have not, in this domain, shattered in depth the basis of the colonial status quo. Not only does the problem remain whole but the new policies to recast education have led to a hecatomb with regards to adolescents’ command of a language of expression. The colonized adolescent, even if he was deprived of his maternal tongue, could still dispose of a vehicle for his thoughts through which he could express his rebellion, his ideas, one through which he could exteriorize his personality. The post-independence adolescent has lost this imposed vehicle but has not yet re-conquered the other. He is aphasic. His thought, his deep personality, only emerge in sporadic, imprecise scraps. His linguistic infirmity does not come from a conflictual position, but rather from the imprecision of his methods, from the uncertain negotiations in this phase of evolution or from the stagnation through which most newly independent countries go through. The tragedy has thus changed in nature — it has deepened.
Laabi would settle early on the question of whether there was any possibility of a “legitimate” language for the poet. For him, the question was not whether Arabic was better than French, but rather, how each language could be re-appropriated. “A poet’s language is first and foremost his own language, the one that he molds and shapes out of linguistic chaos, as well as the manner in which recomposes the fragments of worlds and dynamics that exist within him.” The far more pertinent question was how to carry out that recomposition.
Questions of cultural decolonization would continue to dominate Souffles in its early years, both in the essays Laabi and others wrote about literature, the plastic arts, education, and other topics and in the poetry that was the publication’s main feature during this period. Souffles would become a launching pad for many of Morocco’s leading contemporary poets and novelists. Along with Laabi himself, Mustafa Nissaboury and Mohamed Khair-Eddin contributed; the three are probably Morocco’s best-known poets, although that fame is mostly restricted to the French-speaking world. They initially wrote in French, but with the advent of Anfass, some poems, such as Nissaboury’s “Manabboula,” were republished in Arabic or even rewritten.
Souffles offered younger poets an opportunity to reach a larger audience than other publications coming out of Morocco at the time, particularly as it had captivated the attention of French intellectual circles who, caught up in the enthusiasm over decolonization and an emerging nonaligned movement led by third-world countries, publicized the new Moroccan literature to a wider Francophone audience. Tahar Ben Jelloun, perhaps the best-known contemporary Moroccan writer internationally, was among them. Ben Jelloun began writing in Souffles in 1969, a few years before he published his first novel. In “Planet of the Apes,” his first published poem, Ben Jelloun articulated the same identity issues Souffles had initially raised (notably, the interiorized Orientalism among Moroccan artists and writers and their pandering to French tastes for exotica), but combined them with a more violent critique of Western consumer culture:
The Club Maméditerranée is your salvation French atmosphere guaranteed, demanded, or your money back
Climb atop some dromedaries
your vertigo will be in the image
of your churning hunger;
your mouth will open to footnote
ruin and tears;
In the morning drink a little Arab blood:
just enough to decaffeinate your racism;
To your friend offer your tattooed souvenirs
a postcard of aluminum beatitude
obscure resonance of our morgue-skull;
And then fuck an Arab
he is natural, a little savage
but so virile…
Morsels of uprooted flesh will
Dangling by a thread
to your shameful memory
You will no longer be able to drive him
out of your phantasms
He will ejaculate humiliation and rape
onto your face
you will gather under the tamed trees
you will watch the stars dissolve in your
the fever will rise and you will spit blood
onto your good sentiments
the carrion will come to crucify you
in the shade of the wonderful sun of the
“Planet of the Apes” captured what Souffles was fast becoming: a firebrand publication that was more explicitly politically militant in the wake of the catastrophic Arab defeat of 1967 and the events of May 1968. The magazine grew more explicitly invested in the Palestinian plight, more critical of French influence (notably Francophonie, France’s cultural policy towards its former colonies) — more militant generally, forging links with the American Black Panther Party (some of whom were living in exile in Algiers), Egyptian communists, Chinese Maoists, and radical African and Latin American movements. This led to some unfortunate choices, such as the publication of a defense of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Enver Hoxha’s Albania.
Souffles’s editorial team could not help but be influenced by the leading debates of the day, notably over the Palestinian question. But the primary engine of the magazine’s political turn may have been the arrival of Abraham Serfaty, a firebrand mining engineer who would come to lead Morocco’s radical left and turn Souffles into its mouthpiece. Serfaty was born in Tangier to a middle-class Jewish family; during his engineering studies at the elite Ecole des Mines in Paris he joined the Communist Party. Upon his return to Morocco, he linked up with local communists and joined in the nationalist movement, earning him a six-year exile courtesy of the French colonial authorities. He returned after independence, and his education put him in high demand; he held posts in the Ministry of Economy and was a key architect of Morocco’s policy at the Office Cherifienne des Phosphates, the state mining company. By the late 1960s, however, Serfaty was at the forefront of a wave of strikes by miners and other workers. He was fired from his ministry post in 1968.
Serfaty met Laabi in early 1968 during political debates on the Palestinian question. Between this period and 1970, he slammed the door on a Moroccan Communist Party he found too ossified and created, with Laabi, the Marxist-Leninist movement Ila al-Amam (Forward).
Under Serfaty’s tutelage, Souffles’s poetry section shrank in favor of articles about educational policy, industrialization, the relationship between capitalism and imperialism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the international banking system. This was not always to the taste of the review’s early contributors, poets who felt they had nothing to say about the mechanization of agriculture or the Rogers Plan. Indeed, poems by Nissabouri and Khair-Eddin slowly disappeared from the pages of Souffles. Even Laabi’s poetry took on a tone more explicitly linked to events of the day. “The Call of the Orient” was a poem published shortly after Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser’s death:
I saw Damascus Beirut
but it was not the mourning of Jerusalem
that covered the walls of Damascus and
the inscriptions spoke of a man
ignored the land
and Jerusalem its womb
in simian and tragic lines
behind the symbolic hearses
of the last pharaoh
fallen under the blows
and of Remorse
attacked by a mirage
reappeared on the other side of the Jordan
similar and yet different
Amman relieved it
so colossal was the massacre
In 1969, the changes Serfaty had brought to Souffles became even more evident with the publication of a special issue on Palestine (including an article by Serfaty distancing Moroccan Jewry from Zionism). The layout of the magazine changed, too. Gone was the abstract, blazing dark sun that had graced every cover since the first issue in 1966; instead Souffles became wider, thicker, squatter. Its covers featured pictures and illustrations.
The social and political crisis of Morocco in the early 1970s — massive labor unrest, political disenchantment with mainstream parties, rampant corruption, and the increasing autocracy of King Hassan II — had helped transform Souffles from a literary review into the country’s foremost political newsletter. In 1970 and 1971, years of permanent strikes at many universities and high schools, students held teach-ins where the latest Souffles served as textbooks, its articles templates for discussion and debate. It was not a magazine that one bought and read in one’s living room or at the café; it was a manifesto for a young and diffuse political movement.
Souffles’s new political direction, its association with Ila al-Amam, and the central role it played among the revolutionary student movements — which had adopted Laabi and Serfaty as intellectual leaders — would soon land the publication in trouble. Issue number 22, published at the end of 1971, featured an essay by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine titled “Toward a Democratic Solution to the Palestinian Problem” and another by Serfaty dismissing “democracy” and “dictatorship” as petit-bourgeois concepts. It would be the last to be published. In the first few days of 1972, Laabi and Serfaty would be singled out by the Moroccan security services as a driving force of the student movement. Serfaty remembered the day of their arrest in his memoirs:
It was that early in the morning of Thursday 27 January 1972 [that] the police came to get us at our respective houses, Abdellatif and I, to take us to the central police station of Rabat where we were, separately, immediately submitted to torture. It was the first time. I had received beatings and very hard blows when arrested by the colonial police, but torture is another ordeal. It’s not even fear of death: in December 1952, I had received blows that could have shattered my skull but had not said a word. Torture is a form of debasement that any being rejects, with a refinement in pain that horrifies much more than the naked specter of death. If one is not prepared to sacrifice one’s life for one’s ideal, one gives in from the first few moments. But there is worse: torture makes one mad, in [that] it is in this abyss of insanity that one risks losing all self-control, and thus to betray oneself by talking.
Their release was in part possible thanks to students who took to the streets in droves (often brandishing copies of Souffles) to demand their freedom. Laabi was subsequently rearrested and sentenced to ten years of prison for crimes of opinion. In 1980 he was released but forced into exile to France, where he still continues to write. Serfaty went underground shortly after the first arrest and spent two years hiding in safe houses, where he continued to devote himself to Ila al-Amam until the police caught up with him. He spent the next seventeen years in jail serving out a life sentence (on a charge of “plotting against the state’s security”) before also being exiled to France. Serfaty was one of several prominent dissidents who returned to Morocco after the death of King Hassan II in 1999, when he was made an advisor to a state-run oil exploration institute. He is now retired and severely ill.
Shortly after Souffles was banned, General Mohamed Oufkir, Hassan II’s right-hand man, ordered fighter pilots to shoot down the royal jet. They failed, and Oufkir was killed and his entire family imprisoned. It was the second coup attempt in a year and would usher in over two decades of repression and fear, the so-called années de plomb (“years of lead”) during which political and press freedoms were severely restricted and Hassan II’s political opponents systematically destroyed.
In recent years, with slightly greater press freedoms afforded by Mohammed VI, there has been a wave of new periodicals. Some, like Le Journal, have produced trenchant critiques of Morocco’s hesitant democratization under the new monarch. But in the thirty-five years since the demise of Souffles, no publication has matched its stature, appeal, or intellectual authority. The debates it inaugurated-on education, language, identity-are with us still, albeit in new configurations. Ironically, the postcolonial environment that Souffles emerged out of, centered on North Africa’s uneasy political and cultural relationship with France, has now almost entirely been replaced by a more uneasy relationship with American political and cultural power. And the inheritors of the humanistic legacy of Souffles face fresh opponents, most notably from Islamists. Nichane, a new secular-minded news magazine printed in darija, Morocco’s dialect, was banned in early 2007 for printing jokes about the prophet Mohammed. The editor of Nichane, novelist Driss Ksikes, was so embittered by the episode that he resigned. Since then Ksikes has been dreaming up a new cultural review whose inspiration will be the early Souffles, with a focus on the arts and literature rather than the often tawdry and convoluted turns of the Moroccan political scene. As to the later, combative, political Souffles? Time will tell.
In 1382, glory descended upon the young men of England’s seminaries and theological schools, alongside such novelties as mystery, sex, female, and horror. Or rather, glorie descended, one of several new words improvised by Oxford don John Wycliffe and his band of translators for their controversial English-language version of the Latin Bible. The word’s first appearance is in Genesis, in the story of Joseph. The best-loved son of Jacob, son of Abraham, and owner of the famed coat of many colors, Joseph is sold to a passing caravan by his envious brothers, but despite years of exile, slavery, imprisonment, and even sexual harassment, his gift for interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams eventually lands him a plum posting in charge of Egypt’s royal granary. Later, when Joseph encounters his brethren, now starving — it is a time of famine, just as he predicted — he instructs them to take word home to their father:
Lo! youre iyen, and the iyen of my
brother Beniamyn seen, that my
mouth spekith to you;
telle ye to my fadir al my glorie, and
alle thingis whiche ye sien in Egipt;
haste ye, and brynge ye hym to me.
[Genesis 45: 12-13]
Jacob comes to Egypt to see Joseph’s unlikely success for himself, and brings the Israelites with him. (This move would not go entirely well for the Jews, but that’s another story.) In Genesis glorie attends to the crosser of borders, the exile. It belongs to the immigrant, with his neatly tended warehouse of wheat.
Wycliffe’s translation was undertaken in the chaotic aftermath of the Black Death, a time of epic realignment, from which new classes, new nations, and new literatures would spring. It was composed at exactly the same moment as The Canterbury Tales, and if the new translation was dedicated to anyone, it was less the Father, Son, or Holy Ghost than the farmers, tailors, and millers whose entitlement, piety, and licentiousness Geoffrey Chaucer immortalized in his own vernacular text. (Wycliffe’s critics thought as much, bemoaning how “the jewel of the clergy has become the toy of the laity.”) Where the Roman Tacitus had celebrated the war song of the rebel Boudicca — “On this spot we must either conquer, or die with glory!” — and the authors of the medieval Annals of Wales attributed the victories of sixth-century Celts to a luminous king called Arthur, the translators of the Wycliffe Bible discerned a different majesty, stolid yet popular, the glory of those who survived when twenty million died.
What Wycliffe’s group called glorie had appeared in the Latin Bible as gloria. But the Latin Bible was itself the work of translators, and their gloria sat perched atop still older words in other languages. Doxa, for one, scattered throughout the original Greek version of the Gospels. The word had signified simple “opinion” or “belief,” but the Jewish scholars in Alexandria who translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek in the first centuries BCE chose to render ha-kavod, Joseph’s glory, as doxa. The coinage lent doxa an air of splendor, as well as a kabbalistic register of prayerful submission. (“May my soul be like dust to all,” asks the daily Jewish prayer, dust and soul alike submitting to wind.) Glory is thus connected at the root not only to notions like paradox (refusing to submit to common sense) or orthodoxy (reflexively submitting to same) but also to a heterodox undercurrent in which divinity and mundanity are understood as contiguous. This is a thing-like glory, at best distantly related to a Wycliffe coinage like mystery. It is actually a form of anti-mystery: startling and immediate, like the stench of a family rotting in a plague-ridden cottage, or a sudden flash of gold.
Some mainline Catholic theologians of the same era saw glory in somewhat related terms, speaking of a gloria materialis. This was as an objective, etheric conductor, a class of matter across which the affirmed and exalted fact of God could be transmitted to the baser levels with all the force of a slap in the face. Gloria materialis was like a fifth element connecting earth, fire, water, and air to God. It was the iridescent fingerprint of the Creator on his creation, a holy residue that, like an oiled wick, could connect the flammable hearts of men to the spark of the divine. A few centuries later the first chemists would theorize another fifth element, phlogiston, an invisible substance thought to bind the other four in combustible configurations; gloria materialis could be thought of as a theological phlogiston. This kind of glory evoked the properties of circuits and currents in the pre-electrical age. It could suddenly render one speechless, the proverbial bolt from the blue. One could plug into this circuit willingly, or one could find oneself turned abruptly into its passive conductor, filled against one’s will by the grandeur of God. Away from the Church of Rome Calvin imagined something similar and called it grace, a downward pressure from heaven that could force an unwilling man to bend the knee. It was through grace that even the lowliest might find themselves saved.
Wycliffe’s sense of a middling, almost humble glorie would lose its focus as later generations lost sight of the apocalypse that had engendered both them and it. Glory has come to accommodate a much wider world of meanings. Today we speak of glory in relation to winning seasons, paradigm-shifting technologies, roadside conversions, early adopters, sublime panoramic vistas (both natural and reproduced), and first brushes with abiding, transforming loves. And glory has become a channel for other, darker energies. Milton wrote in Paradise Lost of Lucifer’s doomed aspiration “to set himself in Glory above his Peers,” and we moderns feel the pang of deep, underlying sympathy. The louche terrorist Zero in Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1885 novel The Dynamiter quipped of his predilection for blowing things up, “Mine is an anonymous, infernal glory. By infamous means, I work towards my bright purpose.” And lo, across much of the English-speaking world, an opening in the partition between two bathroom stalls in a men’s room becomes a glory hole. Dictionaries variously define the glory hole as “a drawer or place where things are heaped together in a disorderly manner,” as an all-male space below decks on a ship, as “an opening in the wall of a glass furnace, exposing the brilliant white light of the interior.” Perhaps the term’s coiners were also thinking of the Latin diminutive gloriola — gloriole in English — which over the years has become a near synonym of halo. The same bright circlet now encloses the head of saint, sinner, and martyr without prejudice or distinction, an opening in the fabric of the world through which they transmit anonymously and alone to another plane. All of it is glory.
I came of age during the 1970s and Eighties in Cambria Heights, Queens, a quiet, quasi-suburban neighborhood of tree-lined streets on the extreme eastern edge of New York City. Our zip code growing up was 11411, a numerologically suggestive palindrome — four ones? One four? It could have easily been notation for a drum machine, the encryption of a rhyme. My family had come to the US in the mid-‘60s, fleeing the island of Haiti and the dictatorship of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Cambria Heights and its environs made tidy safe houses for their aspirations, as well as for those of tens of thousands of equally mobile African-American neighbors. My parents had no intention of staying — no Haitian tyrant had ever held on to power for more than a few years, and they presumed they would soon go back home. But they were grateful to America. Back in Haiti my mother had been pregnant twice, but those “back there” pregnancies had produced stillborn twins (fraternal; one boy, one girl) and a weak, premature daughter, doomed to an infant’s burial. I was told the story of my dead siblings as soon as I was able to hear it. The moral I came away with was that I was not the firstborn; I was simply the first to survive. Sometimes I wondered whether they resented me the good fortune of my birth in exile, if they wished Duvalier had made himself dictator sooner.
The then-defining traits of New York City in the popular imagination — subways, graffiti, blight, crime — were in the main hard to come by in our neighborhood. Public transit started running out of steam long before it got to us, the terminal stops of the subway system transferring bedroom commuters onto weak sister buses several miles to our west in Jamaica, and Queens’s sketchier nabes were highly specific and concentrated zones whose outlandishness only underscored their anomaly. Queensbridge Houses may have been the largest, most direly expansive public housing project in the United States, but it sat remote on the borough’s Manhattan-facing edge like a distant stand of foothills abutting a rarefied, skyscrapered promised land. Similarly, for most of my youth the suffering and violence in Queens’s worst precinct — the appropriately nicknamed Southside — was experienced largely through newspaper headlines, rhymes, and television news, though it was merely a long bicycle ride away from the major landmarks of my adolescence. From the mid-Eighties through the mid-Nineties, Southside was ground zero of Queens’s crack epidemic; Curtis Jackson, aka 50 Cent, twenty-first century hip-hop’s biggest-selling robber baron, grew up there. Long before the entire world knew the trivia of 50 Cent’s comic-book origin — shot five times while dealing drugs in Southside! In the face! — it was well established that a kid from Cambria Heights or Saint Albans would have to be crazy to ride his bike out there. It would get tooken, as the West Indians liked to say.
Our part of Queens was as far away from the urban centers of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx as it was possible to live and still consider oneself a legit New Yorker. Most of its residents had fled the big, bad core, but they had not run so far that it was unable to exert a powerful hold on the imaginations of their sons. We idolized and feared what we shorthanded as “The City,” fretted that our distance had diminished us, made us soft. We tested ourselves against The City’s hazards at the border when we could, but mostly we carried traces of it into our homes surreptitiously, for study. The years of my growing up saw the birth of hip-hop in the United States, and New York is the genre’s Garden of Eden, but Queens has always played the role of stepchild in these histories. (Even bucolic Staten Island would eventually be redeemed by the esoteric exploits of the Wu Tang Clan.) My part of Queens played an honorable role in Eighties hip-hop — I can claim to have seen local heroes Run-DMC at more than one block party before they were famous — but there was always a sense that my local heroes were tainted or limited by the underlying good nature of their origins. Even in the Eighties you had the feeling that somewhere in The City, likely in Manhattan, Brooklyn, or the Bronx, there existed a more powerful musical live wire, whose voltages and amplitudes ran differently than ours. The great MCs of Eastern Queens and Western Long Island — Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy — made epic claims on our attention, but they tended toward the formal or political, their imprecations and choruses not quite the soundtrack to an anxious walk down an unexpectedly darkened alley. Although they would have their moment, we always had a feeling that they’d been born to be eclipsed by hard-cases from the West, even if the West was 50’s Southside or Mobb Deep’s Queensbridge.
At eleven or twelve my friends and I were simply too young to get on a train and witness such things for ourselves. But we had been able to intuit their existence through the music and chatter that emanated from radio towers atop the Empire State Building, maybe the World Trade Center. During the day New York was a fairly standard American radio town, but on Fridays and Saturdays the airwaves would undergo startling transformations. On weekends I would stay up way, way past my bedtime, alone with a primitive radio cassette recorder, obsessively listening to, taping, and annotating live hip-hop shows broadcasting from clubs in The City. It was painstaking work. Masturbatory. I retreated to my room to commune with the music the same way I might retreat with pornography, locking the door and projecting myself into scenarios and situations that were beyond my years and ken. Long before I had any real notion of sex or dating or manly peacockery and expression, I understood that the clubs in The City were playing fields where all of the above and more took place. When the DJ would cut the noise of a crowd into the mix, I pictured myself in the hot, darkened room, lending my voice to the mass, feeding out along wires to the radio towers and into the world, into my bedroom, the circuit complete.
Friday to Saturday, week to week, the mixes changed very little; whole months or seasons might be marked by songs that would appear in different locations in the mix on a given night, in different versions. But when something new appeared in the mix, it was like accidentally stumbling across the third rail. It was magic, a sudden and irrevocable shift in the fabric of the cosmos. I remember being disquieted by the regularity with which what I had believed to be the Greatest Record Ever could be eclipsed by another. How could such things be? Didn’t that mean that the thing I had loved just a few moments earlier was somehow untrue, unworthy? And didn’t that mean that the thing I was loving now was also destined to disappear?
In addition to confounding me, a new, hottish song also immediately sent me into a kind of informational panic. The DJs didn’t tell you what they were playing — it was a club mix, after all — so if you couldn’t intuit who the artist was or make out the lyric to a refrain, you would have to ferret the data out somehow during daytime hours. On my particular block lived two older boys with hobbyist DJ tendencies: Eddie, who played the good-natured, tough-guy protector to the younger boys, and Pete, who was far and away the biggest asshole in a five-block radius. Pete was a blond, blue-eyed kid — his parents were refusenik hold-outs from the Fifties and Sixties, when Cambria Heights had been an Irish and Italian neighborhood — who had survived and prospered by living out a highly specific version of black maleness with an exactitude and rigor that bordered on the Japanese, though it was all thuggery and bullying. Pete had more sneakers and Kangol hats than anyone we knew and was by far a better and more knowledgeable DJ than Eddie, but consulting him was always a last resort. It brought risks — of ridicule, mostly, though also cartoonish physical assaults involving wedgies and Indian burns. Even his eventual redemption was lifted from a certain colored set of pages. Pete converted to a strain of Sunni Islam popular with African-Americans. He lives on the same block to this day, holy and sanctified, his mother and the kids from the old neighborhood the only people allowed to refer to him by his Christian name.
In any case, at a certain point on Friday and Saturday nights I invariably found myself without guides. There were two mixes each weekend night, an 11pm to 2am hip-hop mix and a 2am to 4am house mix, and I would listen to both, cataloguing and recording songs. But in the dead of night, when the house music started, I had nowhere to turn. In the aftermath of disco, most dance music had become associated in our young minds with homosexuals, and neither Eddie nor Pete had much truck with the gays. I would sit in the dark, unnerved and unmanned by the keenness of my interest. I feasted on the orchestral flourishes of the house music then in vogue, the gospel-powered wails of wronged and hopeful black women. It was a vicious cycle: I knew I would never be as tough as Eddie (forget Pete or the kids who lived in The City), so I felt a kind of ecstatic release from the pressure of manly expectation when 4/4 beats and outsized vocals issued out of my radio. But this in turn only further undermined my claim on the 11pm-to-2am slot. I worried that someday I would have to make a choice between mixes, and it seemed unfair, rigged even, a choice between two forms of failure.
Still, the house mix was too compelling to turn away from. I was fascinated by math as a kid, and I would often try to graph the mixes on quadrille paper, assigning admittedly arbitrary values and lines and algebraic expressions to beats, vocal lines, crescendos, and fades. This work was easier with the already schematic dance music, and I would often fantasize about working backwards from a graph and creating a song from it. The pictures always struck me as beautiful, futuristic, graffiti-like, and I wondered what the graph of the Greatest Record Ever might look like. I understood from my readings in physics (another interest) that scientists were on a quest to find a grand unified theory that could explain and encompass everything, and I imagined that such a thing must exist for music, too, a graph of the perfect, hidden beat. This notion seemed to solve the problem of the Greatest Song Ever, as whatever song I loved at any moment could be understood to be an aspect or piece of the Perfect Song, with some lines and equations omitted or mathematically transformed. The next Greatest Song Ever didn’t erase or eclipse the previous one; they were all the same. The upshot, of course, was that I might have to keep listening, cataloguing, and graphing forever. Saturdays and Sundays I would lay in bed well past noon, more haggard than any child of relative quiet and privilege should have been.
As my radio scanned the ether for signs of newness, I was not so much Joseph discerning the true shape of Pharaoh’s dream as Noah, building and collecting, hedging my bets against some gathering storm. (My parents were exiles after all; they had been chased across the sea.) I didn’t know what I was making, to be honest, but I knew that this unknown thing’s construction entailed an awful amount of work. I was going to need help, tools — better tools than pen and graph paper and cassette recorder. My parents had been loath to buy me an Atari. They worried it would come between me and my studies, they said. So I talked them into buying me an expensive personal computer by telling them that it would help with my studies.
I eventually settled on a black-and-silver machine made by Texas Instruments. It was a terrible choice, really, doomed from the start; the TI was introduced in the early '80s, only to be quickly eclipsed by Commodore 64s, IBMs, and Apples. Its one noteworthy feature was that it came with a then-impressive speech-synthesizing peripheral, a side-benefit of TI’s only successful line of consumer electronics: the Speak and Spell talking vocabulary tutor. On more than one occasion I stayed up until dawn, playing the speech-synthesizer against the radio, making the computer talk to me, recite lyrics in various electronic voices and accents. Listening for an echo. I didn’t know it at the time, but Texas Instruments had gotten its start in much the same way as a WWII-era maker of seismological devices, using reflected sound to pinpoint buried petroleum fields and the occasional silent-running German submarine. Giant pistons or explosive devices would beat against the curve of the earth as if it were an eardrum, seismic waves carrying back echoes of pharaonic riches. Like Joseph after all.
One: Across America is a traveling series of installations, each revolving around the central idea of the human identity and its visual shape. The tour began in Harveyville, Kansas, and will make its way west to the Pacific Ocean. See www.texjernigan.com for details.
Gemeiz is a poor showman who works in a nightclub. One day millionaire Assem El Isterliny visits the nightclub, visibly shaken after shooting a young man he caught with his wife. Following his servant’s advice to hide for a few days till things cool down, he decides to employ Gemeiz, a dead ringer for Assem, to take his place as his double. Gemeiz goes to the millionaire’s palace, where Assem’s beautiful wife Camillia and his hysterical sister live. He soon finds out that the young man wasn’t killed (the servants had exchanged the gun’s live ammunition with blanks) and is actually Camillia’s poor brother. After several scenes in which Gemeiz’s tomfoolery proves much more effective than Assem’s rationality in solving the problems of Assem’s life, Gemeiz becomes profoundly bored with living in the palace and attempts to leave. Of course no one believes that he’s not Assem, and the family calls a psychiatrist who decides to lock him up in the “ward of the sane.”
SHADES OF MADNESS
Ismail Yasin, arguably Egyptian cinema’s most famous comedian, had his first leading role in The Millionaire, directed by Helmy Rafla, an industry stalwart with many a comedy under his belt. This was the first in a long series of films throughout the 1950s, in which Yasin assumed what became his trademark persona of the fool who embarks on quixotic adventures, narrowly and miraculously escaping various dangers. Yasin’s ability to contort his face in one million different funny ways, combined with his general appearance — short and bald with a prominent mouth — helped make him an ideal vehicle for a particular type of comedy, one based on exaggerated physicality. In these comedies Yasin’s deviant logic both makes us laugh and allows us to see the world around us through different eyes.
Central to The Millionaire is an extended song and dance spectacle that takes place in the madhouse. It’s a scene that has had a huge impact on popular culture, in part because it references an archetype while producing something completely new. The madhouse is where fools converge and indulge in all sorts of language games. They sing subversive songs, gesticulate wildly, laugh insanely, and break taboos casually; all is acceptable under the umbrella of insanity. The way madness and entertainment meet in such spectacle has proven highly successful with audiences and remains a staple of Egyptian cinema to this day.
There are critics who attack popular comedies for their supposed lack of a narrative structure. But they’re missing the point. These comedies are meant to be episodic, situational, and physical. In them the figure of the comedian focuses on all that is irrational, fragmented, and broken. The comedies become the inheritors of an Arab heritage in which the stories of madmen are often latently critical of power and authority (stories attacking with sarcasm tyrants and their casual abuse of the people abound). Yasin’s is therefore the natural evolution of the archetypal comedic character in both classical and popular Arab culture.
STEPS TOWARD PARADISE
Step 1. Exorcism
Gemeiz is our guide to the alternate universe of the madhouse. To enter, it’s necessary to pass through a series of tests. A doctor first asks Gemeiz a couple of simple questions. “What powers the tram?” Gemeiz replies, “The conductor’s whistle.” When asked how many days of the week there are, his response is six, because Friday is a day off. These answers make the doctor question Gemeiz’s sanity.
The doctor then calls a male nurse to administer a “treatment through music” — what he describes as a highly modern practice. We soon discover that the practice isn’t modern in the least, but rather, an entirely medieval affair. Gemeiz is showered with cold water for two hours. The male nurse (played by Riad El Qasabgy, Yasin’s archnemesis in countless films, the Tom to his Jerry) then puts on an Oriental dance tune, forcing Gemeiz to dance as he is interrogated. “Are you a man or a woman?” Gemeiz’s inconclusive answer is, “All that remains is for you to ask whether I am pregnant”; the nurse repeats his question, at which point the answer becomes, “Well, now I am a woman.” The situation is reminiscent of exorcism rituals, in which the exorcist asks the patient questions that allow his other “repressed” persona to appear. As it happens, the woman who appears out of a man became the subject of another Ismail Yasin vehicle, Fateen Abdel Wahab’s 1954 Miss Hanafy.
The doctor, now absolutely convinced of Gemeiz’s insanity, asks the nurse to take him to the ward of the sane. The name, highly ironic, helps highlight a series of oppositions and paradoxes that mark the film. The contrast between poverty and wealth, a common enough dichotomy in the melodramas of the period, looms large. (The binary opposition between Assem El Isterliny and Gemeiz is also clear; Assem is highly rational and jealous, an aristocrat of Turkish origins, while Gemeiz is humorous and foolish, a man of the people who by film’s end will marry a servant.)
Eventually, Gemeiz is literally pushed into the ward. As he hesitantly descends the stairs, we’re reminded of myriad figures who’ve descended into the nether-world in myths. This alternative world is where our anti-hero takes active steps toward rediscovering himself, letting unconscious drives free; his road to knowledge passes through folly.
Step 2. Redemption
Grand in scale and flanked by palatial columns, the ward is a fantastical place. The musical background, a drone-like hum (probably a recording of musicians warming up – an unlikely, almost avant-garde choice, for a commercial film in the 50s) induces a state of calm, expectation, mysteriousness, and fear that both reflect Gemeiz’s inner state and provide the overture to the music of the coming spectacle. The line between real and unreal, the visible and invisible, is subtly indicated. Gemeiz plays an invisible qanoun toward the end of the scene, and we magically hear the tinkling notes of a virtuoso instrumentalist. When one of the inmates shouts that he is a train and starts to imitate one, we hear the sound of a full-on locomotive, and when another inmate warns him against falling into the water, we again hear the rustle of water.
Suddenly one of the madmen, as if he were announcing royalty, declares the arrival of “the sane ones” by blowing a horn, and the show, finally, begins. The ward, just a moment ago a ship of fools, is suddenly transformed into a Shaabi carnival, as the entire chamber breaks into song and dance.
Truly remarkable is the number of celebrities among the extras (fifty, at a minimum) in these scenes, including famous singers and musicians who utter only one or two lines. Serag Munir, whose name appears on the credits equal in size to the main actors, appears for roughly two minutes as the character of the Bedouin hero Antar, the same role he played in Salah Abu Seif’s epic film two years earlier.
A series of sketches in which each madman assumes a different historical character follows. The choice of characters is inevitably loaded. Napoleon saunters down the stairs, declaring that he holds a mighty secret, only to start muttering banal inanities. Nero is next (“I will light up Rome with a match”), announcing a glorious speech before breaking into a nursery rhyme.
Antar, the Bedouin Arab hero of legendary strength, also appears. However, when he begins speaking (after a musical introduction that includes bagpipes) we discover that his voice has been perfectly dubbed over by the feminine voice of a young woman. When Gemeiz asks him what happened to his voice, Antar replies that it changed after his last thrashing. Next, an old wizened man appears from under his traditional robes and announces himself as Antar’s lover Abla (traditionally a paragon of beauty and symbol of pure love). The themes of transvestitism and travesty are central to the spectacle and are further emphasized in such details as a cutaway shot of three men clapping in the background; the central figure’s long hair is tied back into two ponytails decorated with flowers in an obvious feminine twist.
Each time a new historical character is introduced, pompous, almost militarystyle music — a complete orchestral brass section — is played. This music, however, soon f lips into the light folk-inf lected baladi music of the time. Whenever one of the madmen starts to speak seriously, the music reverts to Western (Napoleon, Nero) or Bedouin (Antar) motifs. And again they revert to a popular mode when the madness of what they say is revealed. This opposition between Western music and Oriental popular music comes with a series of associations. Orchestral European music here implies rationality, seriousness, authoritarianism, and patriarchal power, while the music of the people carries associations of madness, sarcasm, and breaking the barriers of class and gender.
MADMEN IN PARADISE
At the end of the spectacle, Gemeiz enters a dialogue with a bookish inmate carrying a large pile of texts; he looks like a philosopher. The inmate explains to Gemeiz that the real madmen are actually outside, in the world, and if Gemeiz seeks to leave this “paradise,” to appear sane in the eyes of the world he will have to lie, indulge in hypocrisy, and commit immoral acts. Indeed, the lesson, if one is to glean one, is that history’s leaders and notables are “sane” but miserable; only through insanity can one find wisdom, contentment, and freedom.
The male nurse then reappears to take Gemeiz to see his wife and sister. He proceeds to lie and assumes the persona of the millionaire once again. In this way, he is let free. His final parting words to his fellow inmates: “Farewell to you, happiest and sanest of all people.”
The Cairene spring arrived in mid-May, in the form of perfect days — breezy yet warm, the kind of weather that makes you want to run around the city on foot. It was a few anxious weeks before midterm elections for the Shura Council, and every inch of available space was plastered with political posters. Building facades, bridges, and electricity poles: the faces were everywhere, bearing down on me from every direction, imploring or commanding, struggling to wrest my attention from the movie posters and advertisements for cell phones, sunglasses, and hearing aids.
The biggest, glossiest posters always belonged to candidates from the National Democratic Party, the president’s party, though there were plenty of them for Tagammu (“Rally”), the perennially underfunded party of the left. Tagammu’s candidates were a study in forbearance; they looked almost comfortably shabby, resigned to their impending loss. The Muslim Brotherhood is technically barred from participating in Egypt’s “secular democracy,” but you can tell the “independent” candidates running with the Brotherhood’s blessing by the words al Islam howa il hal running across the bottom. “Islam is the answer.”
One of the most striking posters depicted a candidate for the affluent district of Kasr El Nil. I noticed it one afternoon while walking down the west side of Zamalek, along the Nile. I had just turned onto Mahmoud Mokhtar Street, by the opera house, when I came across a wall lined with the most sublime images. Framed in a laurel wreath was the face of a blond-haired, blue-eyed, fairskinned angel, emerging from or ascending to a heavenly blue sky as wispy clouds floated peacefully above. It was an icon, though not the kind you see at church. It seemed almost satirical, an homage to some kitschy object of divinely inspired lust, like l’Ange Blessé by Pierre et Gilles. I went closer to read the fine print: al Islam howa il hal.
The marriage of pomp, politics, and religiosity is nothing new. For decades now, sweeping banners of President Hosni Mubarak have shaded our boulevards from the sun, while halos form around his image through clouds of carbon monoxide.
I grew up in that shade. Imprinted in my mind’s eye is the president’s iconic face, his infamous black Aviators, The Road Ahead reflecting back into the infinite realm of his pupils. It’s a mesmerizing image of control; I try to be wary, but I can’t suppress a fuzzy feeling of awe whenever I see it.
Which, to this day, is often, but never more so than in the summer of 2005. It was a milestone event — the first “multiparty elections” in Egypt’s history, the first presidential election of my adult life. And he was everywhere. If a shop didn’t have a billowing image of Mubarak covering every possible crack and crevice on every wall, pillar, and post, it was asking for trouble. Mubarak’s visage was omnipresent, looking out from nursery schools, up from rooftops, pasted on buses, and tucked inside textbooks. Other parties were competing, but it was mostly symbolic; the NDP’s campaign was masterminded by Marawan Hamed, the savvy young director whose next major project would be the best-selling film in the history of Egyptian cinema, The Yacoubian Building. Most of the Mubarak posters were distributed via the good offices of the state. If I had ever entertained hopes of getting out from under his image, the inundation of our public spaces that year dashed them forever.
Of course, there’s more than one Mubarak. In the capital, his most recent portrait is set against a Matrix-inspired emerald green galaxy. This is Mubarak 2.0, the One whose instantiation reflects the values of the tech-savvy world of Cairo’s aspiring middle-to-upper classes.
Further up the Nile, icons of the president assume more phantasmagoric shapes. In one arresting depiction, Mubarak appears upright, full-figured, shadowless. He is a true demigod, straddling the worlds. To his left, pyramids; to his right, skyscrapers. His right arm sweeps away to the horizon, index and middle fingers slightly tilted, raised in blessing. Fighter jets splinter into the sky like fireworks beneath a bright orange nimbus: the sun god, Ra. If there are cults in Egypt today that still believe in the old gods, that seek to restore the majesty of the pharaohs, Mubarak wants their vote, too.
It there were such a cult, it might well have a chapter in Qena, a governorate in the heart of upper Egypt whose denizens line the walls of their homes with votive portraits of themselves — riding a plane, sailing away on a cruise ship, making the hajj. These are people who live amid ancient tombs and temples, just outside the valleys of the Kings and Queens. It’s not hard to imagine that the narratives in Mubarak’s hand-painted political posters speak to viewers in the south in a manner we may be numb to in the city.
When Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power in the 1950s, he sometimes equated himself with Ramses II. As Ramses had expelled the Hittites from Egypt, so Nasser had expelled the British; Ramses built colossal statues, temples, and vaults that would last for all time; Nasser would have his dam at Aswan, a monumental project that would change the topography of the land forever, creating the greatest lake in Egypt. Ramses, son of Ra, became the greatest of the kings of Egypt; and so Nasser, his successor, would refract that ancient glory.
Perhaps it’s merely a function of nostalgia, a longing for something before my time, before this time, but the old iconography of the glorious Nasser seems more powerful to me than that of Mubarak. His image was invested with hope — for honor, equality, victory. His icons were not only the stuff of political campaigns; they also appeared in private homes, on desks and bedroom walls. One of the most common images people hung in private spaces was a black and white photograph of Nasser draped in white linen, making the pilgrimage to Mecca. He is standing upright, the cloth sweeping down his otherwise naked body, hands folded in prayer. He looks to the side, the object of his gaze obscure to us, as a crowd of men, also draped in linen, look toward him. In that iconic image he achieves his ultimate majesty: on the road to the holy of holies, looking for all the world like Zeus.
In September 1974, the Mandala Collaborative received a letter of intent from the Iranian minister of culture and arts to design a new home for the Tehran Symphony Orchestra. It was a prestigious undertaking for the young Iranian firm, a landmark project that excited the interest of the Shah himself. As in so many fields of endeavor, the ambition was to make a great leap forward, from backwardness to the cutting-edge. If the city’s several musical groups were ill-served by the small, overbooked, and understaffed Roudaki Hall, they would soon have one of the largest auditoriums in the world, with seating for 2,000 concertgoers and the finest acoustics money could buy.
It was an era of great plans and major projects. Tehran, which had just hosted its first international film festival in 1973, was to acquire a new museum of contemporary art next to Farah Park. A forward-looking “city of the arts” was planned for Shiraz, a research and performance institute to encompass sound, painting, sculpture, cinema, theater, ballet, poetry, and literature. As with Mandala’s Center for the Performance of Music, these various projects were meant to benefit Iranian audiences while impressing upon others the world-class status of a nation that styled itself “the most crisscrossed crossroads in the world” and the inheritor of thousands-year-old traditions.
The design concept for the symphony hall was based, Mandala claimed, on the “unifying organizational conceptions of Persian ‘place making,’” especially the garden, both the “hidden garden” — an open courtyard surrounded by indoor spaces — and the “manifest garden” surrounding the indoor spaces. The idea was to create a “concentric series of spaces” that would rhyme with and be expressed by the design’s centerpiece, a twelve-meter-tall ziggurat sloping up to the sky in rounded, circular steps. The whorled ceiling of the auditorium was at once functional — minutely calibrated to achieve optimal reverberation — and symbolic, evoking the graded textures of the walls at Persepolis, the ruined capital of the Achaemenid Empire just outside present-day Shiraz. Extensive rectangular gardens were meant to recall pardises — the ancient Persian ornamental gardens from which the English word “paradise” derives. The ceremonial staircases at Persepolis were reproduced, while the raised platform in the main hall echoed the Apadana, Darius’s audience hall.
The project, which also involved the American firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, proceeded slowly. Thousands of drawings and plans were devised; a model was produced and personally inspected by the Shah. It was very much a royal symphony hall, tailored to the needs of the emperor, with separate entrances for the conductor, the service workers, and the royals. The main entrance for commoners faced Pahlavi Avenue, near a proposed stop for the then-unbuilt subway.
By 1978, as the Shah’s repressive apparatus lost control of the country and Iran pitched into its revolutionary moment, the principals of the Mandala Collaborative fled the country. Yahya Fiuzi, the partner in charge of the design, had quit both Iran and Mandala the previous year; Nader Ardalan, Mandala’s founder, attempted to keep the project going from his new home in Boston. But as the clerical regime consolidated power, the idea of a royal symphony hall became an anachronism, yet another reminder of the epic waste and misplaced priorities of the Pahlavi era. Like so many things, it was a step too far, the latest in a long line of glory-mongering excesses.
In 1971, Mohammad Reza, Shah of Iran and self-styled “light of the Aryans,” celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the first Persian Empire with a party for six-hundred friends and admirers — celebrities, politicians, and potentates from across the globe, including Orson Welles, Prince Juan Carlos of Spain, King Hussein of Jordan, Pat Nixon, and Nicolae Ceausescu. Haile Selassie, the Negus of Ethiopia, had pride of place, as representative of the world’s oldest government. The events began at dawn on October 12, at Pasargad, with an apostrophe to the Shah’s most illustrious forebear. “After the passage of twenty-five centuries, the name of Iran today evokes as much respect throughout the world as it did in thy day,” the Shah said, standing before the tomb of the founder of the Achaemenid Empire. “Cyrus, Great King, King of Kings… . Sleep on in peace forever, for we are awake and we remain to watch over your glorious heritage.”
Xenakis was a frequent guest of the Shah and the Shahbanou, Empress Farah Diba, whose patronage made possible an array of cultural happenings, including the Tehran International Film Festival and the Shiraz Arts Festival. The first Shiraz festival had been held in 1967; over the next decade, the event brought a profusion of the West’s most progressive composers, musicians, visual artists, filmmakers, playwrights, and directors to Iran, along with traditional musicians from the East. Orghast, the first project of Peter Brook’s radical Paris-based International Center for Theatre Creation, premiered at the Shiraz festival in 1972 with a mixed troop of European, Japanese, and Iranian actors and a script (in a made-up language also called Orghast and supplemented with Greek, Latin, and Avesta) by Ted Hughes. Merce Cunningham’s dance company performed there, as did John Cage. Modern and electronic music was particularly favored; Karlheinz Stockhausen received multiple major commissions, while Xenakis, who had presented several ambitious works (including a 1969 choral work dedicated to political prisoners, among them “thousands of forgotten ones whose names are lost”) was asked to be director of the proposed arts center in Shiraz.
Though the audience for the Shiraz festivals was mostly Iranian, the predominance of Western artists and the vast sums spent preparing Shiraz for visitors made them, like the imperial celebrations, a magnet for criticism. Iranian newspapers denounced modernist tendencies (like Stockhausen’s “meaningless” music). Liberal reformers sometimes echoed religious complaints, insisting that the monies spent on these foreign-dominated cultural events might be used to improve the lives of average Iranians. But the cultural dimension was always close to the surface. The 1977 Shiraz Festival featured Pig! Child! Fire!, a play by the radical Hungarian theater troupe Squat that evoked Dostoevsky, Breton, and Artaud while making use of graphic nudity, an animal corpse, and acts of extreme sexualized violence. Squat’s antics had gotten them expelled from various European cities and stripped of their Hungarian nationality; their appearance in Shiraz, in those late days of the empire, felt like the greatest provocation yet. Khomeini again weighed in, this time from Paris: “[I]t is difficult to speak of. Indecent acts have taken place in Shiraz, and it is said that such acts will soon be shown in Tehran too, and nobody says a word.” He needn’t have worried; 1977 was to be the final Shiraz Festival, and Khomeini himself would be returning to Tehran soon enough.
In his first speech to the new nation that he had done so much to will into existence, the Ayatollah Khomeini declared, “We don’t need markers of civilization… . We need markers of Islam.” In the years that followed, a host of new journals attempted to define the aesthetic sensibility of the Islamic Republic. Two of the most influential were Faslnameh Honar (Quarterly Journal of the Arts) and Sureh (Qur’anic Verses). Article after article denounced the art and architecture of the Pahlavi era as either slavishly Western or regressively Persian, or both, while working to recuperate the nation’s Islamic legacy.
Zahra Rahnavard, head of the Al Zahra School of Art, wrote in Faslnameh Honar, “Our Revolution has been a bridge between matter and meaning, between ‘us’ and the ‘divine.’” Revolutionary art, she said, should be ayeh gara (spiritual, Qur’anic, intuitive) rather than vaghe gara (realistic). In this case, her commentary was directed less at the imperialist West than the socialist East — specifically, socialist realism, with its blandly heroicized depictions of individuals making history, which Rahnavard believed was threatening to “dismantle the precious goals of our revolution.”
The idea of the museum itself was also subject to interrogation. An editorial in Faslnameh Honar demanded that, rather than catalogue or represent the arts of past epochs, the revolutionary exhibition would submit the work of art to the judgment of Islam. (Certainly, lovers of modern art feared the summary judgment of the clerics; the basement of the Museum of Contemporary Art became a storehouse for the largest collection of twentieth-century art outside of Europe and North America, including pivotal works by Picasso, Pollock, and Grosz, as well as a silkscreen portrait of Empress Farah by Andy Warhol.) By this light, in fact, the perfect museum was the Qur’an itself, a space in which stories from the past could constantly be reevaluated to provide life lessons for all Muslims throughout time.
This indifference or hostility to the non-Islamic past extended across the humanities. One cleric, writing in Faslnameh Honar, lectured that what Iran needed was not a font of superstition like the Shahnameh (“The Book of Kings,” the eleventh–century poem that was the holy writ of Persian nationalism) but a pasdar nameh (a “book of the revolutionary guard”). Archeology suffered, as well. The Institute of Archeology at Tehran University was closed; funding was slashed or eliminated for ongoing work at various locations, including Persepolis.
In June 1997, nearly two decades after his departure, Fiuzi received a phone call at his home in the suburbs of Washington, DC. It was a representative of the Iranian government, calling with a proposition: Could he lead the design and construction of a grand meeting hall, to be completed in time for the Eighth Summit of the Organization of Islamic Conference — just over five months away. In the wake of Mohammad Khatami’s surprise election in May, the OIC summit was to be a watershed in the history of the Islamic Republic. Iran had boycotted the last five OIC summits over the organization’s refusal to condemn Iraq for the Iran-Iraq war, and the December summit was to be a kind of coming-out party. President Khatami would launch his “dialogue of civilizations” initiative at the summit, beginning with the assembled Muslim dignitaries, many of whom represented countries that the Islamic Republic had broken off relations with (including Egypt, which had briefly sheltered the dying Shah two decades earlier, in the first days after the revolution).
Fiuzi was tasked to revive Mandala’s design for the Center for the Appreciation of Music. His team proceeded to produce some 4,800 drawings, including designs for fabrics and furniture; many were 1970s plans re-rendered with AutoCAD. The new complex would feature resting halls, prayer halls, and meeting rooms, though the focus remained the circular center, formerly the main concert hall, now a tent-like auditorium in which to install some fifty-odd heads of state and their retinues. The timeline required Fiuzi’s team to carry out the design and the construction virtually simultaneously. Six thousand workers laboring around the clock ensured that the construction of the building was finished on schedule.
The new design had to be modified in form as well as function. In light of the occasion of its construction, the conference center was to represent the achievement of Islam, not the timeless glory of the Persian Empire. Fiuzi would have to gut the Achaemenid elements from the original plans and replace them with new design elements in an appropriately Islamic style.
Of course, the nature of Islamic style is itself an open question. Fiuzi, under fantastical time and budgetary constraints, provided a new theory of the project, replacing the old paradigm of “Persian place-making” with something he called heya’ti, “rushed style,” a kind of temporary architecture inspired by traditional Shia religious ceremonies. Heya’ti was the name of the ephemeral structures erected in conjunction with the annual mourning of the death of Ali during the month of Muharram. This justification seemed awfully subtle to some observers, including one high-ranking government official, who responded to the open, minimalist interior with a request for glazed blue tiles, massive chandeliers, and Qur’anic verse to make the space more recognizably Islamic. The morning after his site visit, buses bearing traditional tile workers showed up at the site to begin their work. Fiuzi managed to placate the leadership by, among other things, adding calligraphic verses about Muslim unity from the Qur’an to panels in the main vestibule, though even then the effect was minor, as the letters are carved out of the white surface of the architraves.
Neither the building nor the Islamic Summit Conference was a phenomenal success. The conference center received little attention in the foreign press, and it was heralded in Iranian media more for the “rushed style” of its construction than for its design. This was a monumental work built in record speed for comparatively little money, ninety-three percent of it from local sources (and hence only seven percent foreign — the press loved to quote the exact figure). The “dialogue of civilizations,” though adopted by the United Nations as a theme for the year 2001, did not lead to an epic realignment of thought or politics (or even normalized relations with the US). Yahya Fiuzi did go on to get other, more leisurely commissions in Iran, including work on the Tehran International Trade Center and a proposed Farabi Performing Arts and Cultural Center. Today he lives and works in Tehran.
In The Concealment of Beauty and the Beauty of Concealment, a widely distributed pamphlet based on a 1986 address to the Seminar for Studying Hejab, Zahra Rahnavard, head of Tehran’s Al Zahra School of Art, insisted that a woman could only discover her true nature by covering herself:
The body, which is destined to decay, to be mingled with the dust and produce (and be eaten by) worms, even at the pinnacle of its beauty is but an obstruction in the way to real beauty. The beauty of concealment, therefore, lies in the elimination of the physical values in order to revive the values of the real self of a woman in the mind of the society of man and woman.
This celebration of the hidden self and its attendant derogation of the physical was consonant with the general post-revolutionary disinterest in “civilization” and externalized signs of greatness.
But the concern for appearances is an old theme in Iran, an element of the Iranian personality emblematized by aberoo, “the glow of the face.” It is not simply an elite concern; even the poorest households maintain a room for visitors, a kind of sitting room, in which one’s prize possessions are on display for the enjoyment of the guests. Aberoo is the basis of hospitality, even generosity, but it also contains an element of falseness. Those who labor to keep up appearances often have something to hide.
The 2,500th anniversary events were a kind of aberoo, a presentation of Iran’s best face for the consumption of guests, in this case the hundreds of foreigners who descended on the country to participate in or document the celebration. In addition to the tent city and the outlandish meal and extravagant spectacle at Persepolis, the whole city of Shiraz (where journalists and lesser dignitaries stayed) was cleaned up: the prison painted, potted flowers lined along the main roads, caged songbirds hung on lampposts. Shopkeepers were issued handsome blue jackets. After the events were over and the guests had left, the city was stripped of all these ornaments.
The Islamic Summit Conference and its specially commissioned building was a different kind of project, a demonstration of piety and simplicity, the opposite of ostentatious. But it was a kind of aberoo, too. The building was meant for show. It represented an Iranian claim to a different notion of belonging — to the ummah rather than the mellat. As conceived by the regime, it was to be an emblem of the Islamic Republic rejoining the community of Muslim nations, the site for a dialogue of civilizations — which is also, perhaps, to say, the site for a conjugation of glories. For that is the secret of aberoo, and also of glory: It only exists to be talked about.
My cousin Samir ushers me into his apartment overlooking Beirut’s waterfront. Contemporary art hangs on the walls, and the only view from the windows is the steely blue of the Mediterranean. The walls are freshly painted — an annual ritual, a precaution against the sea air. But this year they are no longer their customary eggshell hue. The large living room has been painted hunter green, the bedroom walls are tangerine, and the sitting room is a pale yellow: the three colors of Lebanon’s opposition alliance.
A bookcase lines one wall of Samir’s sitting room, full of texts on politics, history, and finance, in English and Arabic. Samir, a well-to-do businessman from a Maronite Christian family, directs my attention to one shelf in particular, a shrine to his heroes. There is a box set of songs by Fairouz, the legendary singer whose music is the elemental stratum of Lebanese nationalism. There are the complete works of Khalil Gibran, the Lebanese-American author of mystical works like The Prophet, Nymphs of the Valley, and Jesus, the Son of Man. And there is a collection of the speeches of Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah, the charismatic Shia cleric and leader of Hizbullah, including his famous underground communiqués from last July, during the Israeli invasion. After the war, with much of Lebanon’s infrastructure shattered, entire city blocks demolished by Israeli bombs, and an oil slick inching up the coast, Nasrallah declared victory. At least half of the Lebanese, millions of Arabs, and many Israelis agreed with him.
“Fairouz, Gibran, Sayyid Hasan,” Samir says, beaming. An unlikely trinity, perhaps. But in today’s Lebanon, where political alliances spring up between once-bitter enemies and the lines of confessionalism are increasingly blurred, the unlikely has a way of seeming inevitable. Since the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005, the Lebanese have been fighting their way through a series of crises and opportunities, from the explosive but short-lived “cedar revolution” to the departure of the Syrian Army to the Israeli invasion, all heading into this year’s presidential elections.
Take, for instance, Julia Boutros. A middle-aged, French-educated Orthodox Christian and singer of such mild nationalistic tracks as Ghabat Shams al-Haq (The Sun of Truth Has Set) and Wayn al-Malayin (Where Are the Millions?), Boutros was catapulted to the front rank of contemporary Arab pop for her song Ahibba’i (My Loved Ones). Released less than a month after the UN-brokered ceasefire that ended the July War, the song’s lyrics were adapted from a letter by Nasrallah to his troops, composed in a secret bunker at the height of the bombing campaign. Within days of its release, the five-minute, twelve-second tribute to the fighters of Hizbullah was blaring continuously from loudspeakers all over Beirut and on radio stations across the region. One month after the release of the single, the video for Ahibba’i arrived, with a campaign to raise funds for the families of those who had perished during the war. The sales of the CD and accompanying DVD far exceeded Boutros’s million-dollar goal, fueling a debate between those who see Hizbullah as national heroes and those who regard the group as a scourge.
The video opens on scenes from al-Dahiya, the southern suburb of Beirut. Dust hangs in the air and apartment buildings lie toppled on one another, reduced to rubble by Israeli jets. Faces peer out of ruined houses as a woman walks by. She cuts a striking figure, clad in a black abaya, her chestnut hair spilling luxuriantly over her shoulders. As she strides solemnly through the alleys, children dart out of their houses to follow her, morphing briefly into camouflaged warriors bearing assault rifles. Soon a crowd of boys and girls surrounds her as she intones:
Through you shall the captives be freed Through you shall the land be liberated
The emotional climax of the song arrives as we cut to scenes of handsome commandos moving stealthily through Lebanon’s woodlands, silhouetted against umbrella pines:
You are the glory of our nation, you are our leaders You are the crown on our heads and you are the masters
The last word of this verse is saada, the plural for sayyid, which means “master” or “lord” but is also the title given to those believed to be the descendants of the prophet Mohammed, like Nasrallah himself. This piece of rhetorical brilliance is typical of Sayyid Hasan: in addressing his soldiers — most of whom come from the poorest classes in Lebanon — as the nation’s saada, he inverts the social hierarchy, emptying hereditary titles of their conventional meanings.
Even among Hizbullah’s opponents, the mesmerizing quality of Nasrallah’s political persona is undeniable; to his followers, he is already larger than life. After the war, his popularity in the Muslim world reached heights unattained since Gamal Abdel Nasser. His gentle voice, beatific smile, and twinkling eyes command the attention of a nation of political junkies. His speeches and interviews are delivered in a mix of flawless classical Arabic and colloquial Lebanese. He is a master at manipulating linguistic registers, now issuing an ultimatum with the sharp inflections of a pulpit preacher, now disarming his audience with a coy joke in the Beiruti vernacular. His voice is rendered even more distinct by a speech impediment, which is imitated by many of his younger followers with a near paraphiliac fixation. The details of his personal life — some true, others urban legends — circulate among Lebanon’s bourgeoisie like so much salacious mythography.
At the beginning of the war, a woman wrote to him asking that he send her the abaya he wore while in hiding. Soon enough, the gossip mill had transformed this anonymous woman into Haifa Wehbe, the gorgeous Lebanese starlet famed for such exuberantly cheesecake songs and videos as Ana Haifa (I Am Haifa) and Bus al-wawa (Kiss My Boo-Boo). In one version of this story, circulated as fact, after Haifa asked Nasrallah for his abaya, the two secretly married. It is this dynamic of jarring transgression between a booby Western-style pop star and the austere leader of an Islamic militant group that undergirds, in a more subtle fashion, the visual language of Julia Boutros’s famous music video.
Critics and commentators tended to focus their attention (or ire) on the video’s provocative pairing of child and soldier. But the most interesting thing about the song, and the source of its resonance with popular sympathies, is Julia’s performance of Nasrallah. By transposing his words to music, dressing like him, walking in his environment, and addressing his “loved ones,” Boutros translates his persona into an altogether different, yet ideal, form. In Julia’s impersonation, a kind of perfection is achieved: Nasrallah’s mellif luous and sonorant cadences become music, and he is transformed into a beautiful woman, serenading the beloved who listens, hypnotized. Thus does the unmistakable voice of the poor grocer’s son–turned–militia leader shed its signature blemish and provincial inflection, acquiring an expansive nationalist tenor in the mouth of a Christian woman.
Recently, embattled pro-Western prime minister Fouad Siniora grumbled that all Hizbullah needs is “a composer for a national anthem of their own.” One wonders if he owns a radio.
For a long time, Mingering Mike was one of the greatest musicians no one had ever heard of. Based in Washington, DC, he released a hundred or so singles and albums between 1968 and 1976. The sleeve of his first record, recorded under a pseudonym, bore a testimonial from comedian Jack Benny: “GS Stevens is a bright and intelligent young man with a great, exciting future waiting him.” It added, with mysteriously erratic spelling, “But I hope he can make it in show biss so he can pay me for this fine, outstanding introduction if I do say so myself.”
His output over the following years was phenomenal. He established more than thirty labels, with names like Ramit, Puppy Dogg, Mother Goose, Sex, and Fake, and recorded as Mingering Mike, Mingering Mike & The Vangoes, and The Mingering Mike Singers & Orchestra. Many of his tracks feature long-time collaborator The Big D. His range was extraordinary, covering everything from funky soul and protest ballads to blaxploitation soundtracks, Bruce Lee tribute albums, and comedy platters (In My Corner by Rambling Ralph includes the unforgettable cuts “Sometimes I Get So Hungry I Can Eat a Light Bulb, Or My Chair, Or Even My Hair” and “You Don’t Have To Wake Me, The Aroma Will Do That”).
Occasionally the composer became cocky; Live From Paris, a sickle-cell anemia consciousness-raising triple album by the Mingering Mike Revue All Decision Stars, bore the slogan, “This is Minger’s second live album and it’s so brilliantly good that they couldn’t help but to put three albums in this pack.” Throughout his career, he displayed the kind of insouciant charm evident in his handle. While black musicians from Count Basie to Duke Ellington to Prince Paul have brashly adopted self-aggrandizing new names, Mingering Mike gave himself a moniker that sounds like a schoolyard insult.
As it happens, there’s a good reason why critics and historians have generally shunned Mingering Mike’s music: It never existed. Or rather, each of his records was produced in editions of just one copy. Nor were they pressed on vinyl, being issued instead on pieces of cardboard, the grooves carefully etched with glossy paint, the handmade label glued on. Each record contained a catalogue number, liner notes, and sometimes even a fan club address. The sleeves, drawn in lively and colorful, though rather rudimentary, fashion, show him perched before trees like a black Nick Drake, busting disco moves with a pal in front of the White House or performing on stage before adoring audiences.
Most of the collection was held in a storage unit in Washington — until Mike failed to keep up with the rental payments. His records disappeared, only to be rediscovered a couple of years ago in a flea market by a private detective named Dori Hadar. Now the sleeve art has been made public in a volume from Princeton Architectural Press that also furnishes some biographical shards about Mingering Mike, or Mike Stevens, as he was known to his mother. He had four older brothers and sisters with whom he played a few shows at old folks’ homes and at a local mental hospital. He was conscripted during the Vietnam War but soon deserted.
It can be tempting to view Mike’s self-taught and occasionally outlandish work as an example of “outsider art.” (One of the contributors to the book does just that.) It’s certainly possible to read a lot into album titles such as Fractured Soul and Other Wise, or into the notes accompanying 1975’s Isolation LP: “Dedicated to my dear troubled kin and to anyone else whom once was, but not, anymore…. You can only dig it if you’ve been there.” Yet Mike’s work lacks most of the visual and textual tics characteristic of “outsiders”: extremism, expressive density, love of montage, psychosis, trauma. Rather than laying bare its askew isolationism, Mike’s work places him within a community — albeit an imaginary one — populated by fellow musical creators and producers.
The mere fact of his work’s survival is a delight. His oeuvre shares certain features with other music of the period, from the jazz and soul artists of late 1960s Addis Ababa to the multifarious reggae stylings that gushed out of Kingston, Jamaica, in the early 70s. Many of the era’s most extraordinary songs were recorded on wafer-thin vinyl that crackled like a frying pan and was issued in flimsy sleeves full of runny colors, made from recycled sugar boxes. Compared to the marketing department-led opulence and choreographed moodiness of today’s glossy CD jackets and videos, Mike’s work seems prelapsarianly moving.
Still, there’s a market for innocence, just like anything else. Mike’s work is represented by the Hemphill Gallery in DC, which is hoping to sell it to a museum or archive that will see it as part of, rather than a deviation from, postwar African-American expressive culture. It also turns out that David Byrne, formerly of the Talking Heads, is putting together an album in which Mike’s songs, so long alive only in his dreams, will be notated and recorded by a slew of handpicked superstar artists. There are even plans for a concert in New York. At long last, Mingering Mike may actually be on the brink of the “great, exciting future” he conceived for himself forty years ago.
I doubt, globally speaking, that Muslims are especially known for their senses of humor. Self-effacement is an endearing art, but the world’s leading Muslim figures don’t really cut it when it comes to taking the rip out of themselves. That’s not to say that Muslims don’t preside over cultures steeped in levity and irreverence. Yet whereas Woody Allen and Jackie Mason have given us a loving and lovable paradigm of Jewish (neurotic) humor, Islam hasn’t managed — yet — to provide equally convincing, universally recognized personae who epitomize acknowledged traits of what one might call an “Islamic Humor Imaginary.” Yes, there is a new generation of Muslim standup comics, and this is a signifi cant evolution. We don’t need Freud to tell us about the liberating and revolutionary effects of laughter and humor on the individual and collective consciousness. It’s laugh-out-loud obvious.
This disquisition on whether Islam has funny bones or not is due to a newish Canadian TV program I stumbled across online during the recent month of Ramadan. (It’s true that I don’t extend the rules of Ramadan to the consumption of TV, even though many a hardliner might say Western TV is as corrupting a force as binge-boozing and garrulous gambling.)
Originally aired in January 2007, Little Mosque on the Prairie is a sitcom that (for all the best possible reasons) shouldn’t really work but, sneakily, really does. It originally garnered write-ups in the New York Times, months before actual transmission took place, and turned its hijab-wearing creator, Zarqa Nawaz, into something of a modern Muslim media-star in North America. Set in a provincial Canadian town, Mercy, the show follows the daily tribulations of a small, heterogeneous Muslim community whose spiritual home is a parish church they’ve colonized and made into their local mosque. This is no ghetto community. Their daytoday travails see them crisscrossing the paths of indigenous small-town Canadian non-Muslims — with their attendant bigotries and nervous, erratic political correctness — resulting in a series of plotlines that have included a campaign for an all-women’s swimming session and sex wars in the diminutive mosque over a proposed picketfence that would judiciously separate men and women during prayers.
So far, so not funny.
However, it’s the array of characters and the subtleties of their varied investments in what it means to be a Muslim in the West that marks it out as smarter, and braver, than anything I’ve seen before. In the first episode, a new imam arrives from Toronto to take over the spiritual running of the mosque. Amaar is an educated ex-lawyer in his thirties who is both good-looking and progressively minded. In fact, he is exactly the opposite of the classic image of an imam, an image held in both East and West. This doesn’t exempt him from police suspicions that he is of an Al Qaeda persuasion — there are certain fates that even good looks can’t save you from. I’ve often thought, during Khutbahs at the various mosques I’ve frequented over the years in Britain, from Blackpool to Cambridge to London, that until imams manage to reinvent themselves (and are allowed to reinvent themselves), the rest can’t follow. In this regard, Little Mosque makes an important political gesture that happens to be funny at the same time.
What I enjoyed the most (heightened perhaps during Ramadan’s month of personal privation) was seeing the deployment of hackneyed stereotypes (old school fanatic, reactionary alarmist, local radio DJ) and more intelligent and unusual character types (the daughter of a mixed-race marriage is a beautiful and devout Muslim who flies the flag of feminism without ever becoming a caricatural harpy, while her Caucasian-Canadian convert mother is seen to embody Islam with more principle than her opportunistic, wily Iranian husband).
In many ways, the content is familiar — generational rifts, fear of the Other — but what is original and, I maintain, originally funny, is that these plotlines are played out through the particular lens of contemporary Muslim issues that affect millions who have chosen (or not chosen) to live in the West. Humor can be a mirror that refl ects back disturbing truths about our own prejudices and predicaments and makes those truths easier to digest. I’m no funniness-scientist, and I can’t vouch that Little Mosque on the Prairie is the new Seinfeld, Friends, or Fraser, but here’s a genuine, modest yet important attempt to make Muslims the butt of their own jokes. It isn’t nihilistic anger or political disaffection fueling the humor, but an intelligent observational sensitivity that rightfully allies humor with being human, and being human with being Muslim.
Perhaps the strongest manifestation yet of the Arab influx currently transforming French cinema from within, Abdel Kechiche’s La Graine et le Mulet made its premiere in September at the Venice Film Festival, a timing that seemed both auspicious and appropriate.
A number of American and British films looked to the East this year, attempting to grapple with the economic, social, and political consequences of the failing war in Iraq. The most noteworthy of these, Brian De Palma’s independent drama Redacted, sought to reconcile a structuralist narrative strategy with an unabashedly humanist agenda. Like Kechiche’s film, the result is ambitious, flawed, and provocative. Both works have inspired fervent debate.
Appropriately, it was in Venice seven years ago that the Tunisian-born Kechiche first came to attention, with his debut feature La Faute à Voltaire. That drama, about the travails of a Tunisian émigré attempting to eke out a living in Paris, immediately declared him a talent to watch — a promise confirmed by 2003’s L’Esquive, which audaciously transposed a classical French text (an eighteenth-century comedy of errors by Marivaux) onto the sensibilities of a group of young immigrants in an inner-city high school. The result won a César for Best Film.
La Graine, however, is a very different work, in terms of sensibility if not aesthetics. Kechiche’s “invisible” style (essentially, an appropriation of vérité techniques, influenced equally by the Maysles brothers and Ken Loach) remains unchanged; his canvas, though, is noticeably broader, and his ambitions are more pronounced. The story of a Maghrebi émigré’s attempt to open a restaurant in a decaying port town in Southern France, La Graine proceeds obliquely, by implication and surmise. Much is left for the viewer to deduce. Only after an hour do connections between the various stories begin to appear; but eventually a rigorous structure becomes apparent.
Running to 151 minutes, La Graine et le Mulet reportedly was submitted in an even longer original cut for competition at the Cannes Film Festival, whose selectors admired it but expressed concerns about its length. Kechiche refused to shorten it, and consequently the film was rejected. For Venice, he reluctantly trimmed some twenty-five minutes — yet the result still feels long; it could well lose another twenty-five, without any harm either to its structure or its flow.
Nevertheless, what is there seems intensely, vividly real, steeped in the chaos and tedium and euphoria of daily life in a way that other films in competition couldn’t match. There’s a sense not only of an entire community, but of the messy complexity of actual lives that exist outside the frame and continue after the end credits roll. So it was surprising that despite being heavily tipped for the Gold Lion (Marco Müller, the festival’s artistic director, made no secret of his own preference for the film), it walked away with only a Special Jury Prize, shared with Todd Haynes’s impressionistic Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There.
Most critics were dazzled — though, predictably, its claustrophobic compositions, coupled with its narrative evasions and digressions, proved unaccommodating to all tastes. “C’est la négation du cinema!” thundered one venerable French critic, as the credits began to roll — his fury only confirming that this was, indeed, a major work. Not, perhaps, the masterpiece its more ardent supporters claimed, but an undoubted landmark in the development of postcolonial French cinema.
By contrast, De Palma’s Redacted is very much a work from the outside looking in. The film follows a group of American GIs, stationed in Samarra, who react to the death of their commanding officer, courtesy of a roadside IED, by gang-raping a fifteen-year-old Iraqi daughter and slaughtering her family.
Such a horrific chain of events should constitute sufficient grounds for drama. Yet, ever the stylist, De Palma couldn’t resist complicating the story with devices. Thus, the whole film is comprised of imitation found footage (a video diary, CCTV tapes, an Arab cable-news channel, Islamic fundamentalist websites), thereby enabling the director to mimic — and critique — various “ways of telling” in this modern age.
The result is a mess. Scenes play clumsily, or too long, as the soldiers confront each other and argue their respective cases — their speeches are awkwardly didactic and laced with weirdly unconvincing profanity. The effect is like witnessing improvisation workshops by amateur New York actors.
This was, in some ways, to be expected. De Palma has long been disinterested in the niceties of performance — the acting, for him, typically runs a poor second to the meticulously conceived set-pieces for which he’s renowned. On this occasion, the effect of that priority is ruinous. Not one note, somehow, seems to ring true. And in failing to work as a movie, Redacted also surrenders its moral argument.
Once more, Iraqis are treated largely as inscrutable Others, providing a convenient backdrop to the real story, that old chestnut, the loss of American innocence. In this way, the film endorses the classic arrogance of Hollywood cinema, treating the mysterious East simply as a blank screen upon which to project Western anxieties and preoccupations. The film’s one attempt to “understand” the locals (through a fake French arts documentary titled Barrage) is ridiculed, dismissed as a laughably naive attempt to address a far more complex, perhaps even insoluble, problem.
What, then, is Redacted? Needlessly overelaborated, oddly disconnected, it plays like nothing so much as a lesser reworking of one of De Palma’s own earlier fi lms, 1988’s Casualties of War. (One of the characters in Redacted even videotapes the action — not out of any desire to enshrine the truth, but instead to make a show-reel that he hopes will get him into film school back home.) While galvanized by current events, and genuinely outraged by America’s involvement in an illegal war, Redacted never manages to transcend technique. De Palma has made yet another movie about movies — this time, about his own.
Filmmaker and writer Annemarie Jacir has written, directed, and produced a number of shorts and documentaries, including like twenty impossibles, which premiered in competition at Cannes and has won numerous awards. She was recently named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Cinema. Jacir is cofounder of Philistine Films, an independent production company focusing on productions relating to the Arab world and Iran, and curator and cofounder of Dreams of a Nation, the organization that archives and promotes Palestinian cinema. She has taught courses at Columbia, Barnard College, and Birzeit University and also works as a freelance editor and cinematographer.
Jacir lives in Palestine and is currently editing her first feature-length film, Salt of This Sea, which follows the story of a working-class, Palestinian-American refugee returning home. In September, the production was awarded a Cinema in Motion prize from Spain’s San Sebastian Film Festival.
Amir Naderi’s The Runner (Davandeh) blew my mind when I saw it at a retrospective for him at the Lincoln Center in New York in 2000. Naderi’s decision to shoot in a simple neorealist style resonated with me deeply. I was absolutely affected as a spectator and enormously influenced as a filmmaker by its poetry and Naderi’s depiction of the resilience of the human spirit.
The Runner tells the story of a young boy, Amiro (played by Majid Niroumand), who lives by collecting bits and pieces of scrap from a city rubbish dump and bottles washed ashore by passing cruise ships. The title of the film comes from the game he and his friends (and competitors) play, racing against each other to try to touch the end of an accelerating train as it leaves the station. Amiro is fascinated by the local airport and decorates his room with pictures of airplanes ripped from magazines.
I don’t remember if the screening was full or not, or any of those kinds of details — I was mesmerized. Leaving the cinema, the way that Amiro shouts out the alphabet at the end of the film stayed with me for a very long time. I heard his voice for weeks and visualized his wide face and dark eyes crying out for a kind of truth, for so much more in his life. Naderi succeeded in conveying this boy’s dreams and struggles in such a profound way.
Naderi had been making films since the early 1970s, and The Runner was his eighth feature, made in 1985. He left Iran for New York soon after. I did meet him — in New York at a friend’s apartment, when he screened Water, Wind, Dust, the follow-up film to The Runner, for us, and then several times after that. He was supportive, warm, and entertaining. He was preparing to shoot another feature and was full of energy.
As a filmmaker, I dream of being able to follow a simple story with as much conviction, love, and strength as Naderi.
Artist William E Jones has made films about a pornstar (Finished), the Southern Californian Latino fans of Morrissey (Is It Really So Strange?) and the unlikely documentary and/ or narrative moments within sex films (v. o.), among other hypnotic and subtle works. Through vivid photography, film, and video, as well as considered and considerable prose (see his website: www.williamejones.com), Jones brings to attention modes of being and behaving almost on the brink of obsolescence. No small part of his study is the labor involved in the production of the erotic, the various class and sexual inflections of what it means to be “working” (as a favorite working boy’s T-shirt put it, “Porn Stars Work Hard”). Jones carries on a tradition of experimental filmmaking in no small part about and within the noir heart of that intersection of bodies, industry, failure, and desire called Hollywoodland. What follows is an excerpt of our ongoing conversation that weaves around the narrative of porn, the myth of Roman emperor Heliogabalus, the impact of the internet on documentary filmmaking, the whims of the censor, and beyond.
Bruce Hainley: Before we discuss method and processes of research, perhaps it would be good for you to introduce Fred Halsted, the subject of your next biographical project. When and how did you first hear about Halsted and his films?
William E Jones: I am tempted to say that I’ve always known about Fred Halsted, though clearly that’s impossible. Halsted’s film LA Plays Itself (1972) captures the brutal irony of the “good life” in Los Angeles, which is a tough town, as any hustler quickly discovers. When I first saw it, I thought it was, aesthetically speaking, the greatest gay porn film.
Fred Halsted invented himself as an artist and as a persona. He was the son of an agricultural worker mother and a construction worker father. He grew up in various places in California and spent nearly his entire adult life in Los Angeles. He studied botany, not filmmaking, and gardened for clients such as Joey Heatherton and Vincent Price. He became a successful businessman with a chain of plant nurseries.
In 1969, the year that all-male sex scenes, or “loops,” were first shown publicly in East Los Angeles, Fred decided to get in on the action. The US Supreme Court had not yet established a legal standard for obscenity, so it was a wide-open field, still too risky to be industrialized on a large scale. Fred devised his debut film as an “autobiographical, homosexual statement” directed by and starring himself. Later that same year, he met the love of his life, Joseph Yale, who appeared in the film’s climax. (Joseph had been led to believe Fred was making a nature film, an assertion that did have an element of truth.) This situation–not the sex scene, but the filming of it — scared Joseph off, and the two didn’t meet again until after LA Plays Itself was released in 1972. Over the next twelve years of their relationship, Fred and Joseph made a number of films together, operated a mail order business, published a magazine called Package, and ran a sex club in Silverlake called Halsted’s. Yale died of AIDS in 1986, and Fred never recovered from the grief. In his final year, Fred wrote an autobiography entitled Why I Did It, the manuscript of which seems to have been lost. Halsted committed suicide in 1989. He died without a will, and his estate is in the hands of a family that has shown no interest in attending to his legacy.
LA Plays Itself has an interesting relation to history. It is an unintentional documentary of the circumstances of its filming, and this “documentary effect” only gets stronger with passing years. In the first half of LA Plays Itself, a scene between two young men in Malibu Canyon gets interrupted by bulldozers advancing on the wilderness that shelters them. It’s ironic that there is still significant wilderness in the canyons that Fred thought would be utterly destroyed; what vanished was the Hollywood street life that Fred extensively filmed and probably thought would last forever. Hustlers no longer ply their trade along Selma Avenue by the YMCA. They now hang out in internet cafes to make their dates online. Various websites have replaced the meat racks, but this virtual space, while safe from the physical aggression of the LAPD, is distinctly unphotogenic.
BH: Your film Finished (1997), your last shot on celluloid, used porn star Alan Lambert as its centrifugal force, the absent center your thinking and your shots of Los Angeles orbited. Lambert also took his own life, and we could talk a lot about our mutual fascination with, um, dead beauties, but perhaps it would be more to the point to ask how the process of research has changed for you over the past ten years.
WJ: Narrative films generally concern the struggles of living protagonists who move from place to place, solve their problems, and end up as part of a romantic couple. In the case of a dead protagonist, the narrative depends upon finding out what sort of character he or she was. The conclusion of such a story comes when the investigator — who is not only a stand-in for the spectator but also a sort of ventriloquist throwing a voice into a dead person — achieves a satisfactory quality of knowledge. This necrophilic strategy entails some risk. The result is an art film. The most famous example in the classic Hollywood cinema is Citizen Kane, which is the beginning of narrative cinema’s great ambition — or great decadence, depending on who’s constructing the pantheon.
During my investigation of Alan Lambert, I discovered very little about his life; I discovered much more about how to make a biographical film. When the people around Alan presented difficulties or entirely refused to cooperate, I was forced to fill the gaps with a testament to my desire, my curiosity, my moral scruples. I was in the position of making an argument for Alan that was really an argument for myself on the slimmest of evidence, and I found the challenge fascinating.
My Fred Halsted project initially provoked some weary skepticism (“Oh, another film about a suicidal porn star…”) but Finished and the new movie, separated by more than a decade, have significant differences. For Finished, shot on film, I could not afford to conduct on-camera interviews, so the movie’s main dialectic posed shots of locations associated with Alan Lambert against found images of him. Switching to digital video has allowed me to introduce on-camera interviews to the compositional elements at my disposal. Since I am not abandoning still images or landscape shots, the interaction of these elements is potentially more complex.
Another shift with far-reaching consequences has occurred. Whereas I had to fill the void at the center of Finished with my speculations, I have recently found another preoccupation, at once more concrete and more banal: internet research. Like everyone else, I am astounded by the volume of information, often random and dubious, available to me on the internet. This new level of detail brings with it new frustrations. I now know what color eyes Fred Halsted’s stepfather had and that he had a tattoo on his right forearm, but I have little idea of what he was like as a person. I know exactly where Joseph Yale’s parents are buried, but I haven’t found a single living person who was a close friend.
BH: Where does reading come into this? Your films often have a particular book as methodological inspiration. For Finished, it was AJA Symons’ The Quest for Corvo, whose subtitle reveals its stake in your project: An Experiment in Biography. Symons puzzles together from almost chance encounters, from the texts of Corvo’s that remain (elusive published works, private letters), the subterranean, hand-to-mouth life of an eccentric homosexual littérateur. Some of your recent video works — the kids might call them “mashups” — borrow moves from Raymond Roussel. I wonder if there’s a particular book or author your Halsted project will, in some manner, become a gloss for or homage to? Is this, in part, how you find a form for your desires and materials?
WJ: My work never develops in an efficient, linear fashion. The writer of a narrative film must know how a movie ends at an early stage of its script; to do anything else is to court disaster. I consistently make disasters, not knowing where the research or the writing will lead. In this respect, I have a lot in common with more conventional documentary filmmakers. Where my practice differs is in entertaining the kinds of digressions that most other filmmakers would cut out. For me the digressions are the body of the film.
With the Halsted project as an excuse, I have read many of the historical sources on Heliogabalus. He was a pampered, flamboyant youth who became a Roman emperor through the machinations of his mother and grandmother. As high priest of a Syrian sun god, he attempted to impose his Eastern religion upon Rome, and for his trouble, he was brutally murdered by soldiers in the army that supported his rise to power.
Unless an emperor had something to gain politically from linking himself to the person he succeeded, he generally waged a propaganda war against his predecessor. Heliogabalus was a ludicrously easy target for this sort of posthumous punishment, or damnatio memoriae. Tales of Middle Eastern effeminacy and luxury had furthered Roman political interests for hundreds of years. Many elements of Heliogabalus’s biography — his smothering dinner guests with a shower of rose petals, his masquerading as a palace whore, his offering a reward to whomever could perform a sex change operation on him — are likely exaggerations at the very least. Little is known with certainty about Heliogabalus; on the other hand, the apocryphal literature is extensive.
The chief source of this material is the Historia Augusta, a long text by six authors, including Heliogabalus’s biographer Aelius Lampridius. That connoisseur of perversions Robert Burton and even the towering figure of Edward Gibbon, took the text as authentic, but subsequent scholars have demonstrated that most aspects of the work are fictional or plagiarized, and have gone as far as questioning the very existence of Lampridius. One diligent classicist called Historia Augusta a “farrago of cheap pornography.”
Heliogabalus the mythic figure has inspired many artists and writers, including Antonin Artaud, who expressed a serene indifference to questions of strict historical authenticity: “I have written this Life of Heliogabalus…to help those who read it to unlearn history a little; but all the same to find its thread.” New access to data, and with it, new forms of cheap pornography, admit new possibilities for finding the thread of history.
BH: Part of your pursuit is biographical, and we both have come up against people who will not speak about what they know; people who will tell tales but only anonymously; subjects who are struck with the convenience of amnesia. Have you learned any tricks to woo revelation from the reluctant? And, if not, how do these silences and gaps become structural, paradoxically productive, in terms of changing your thinking as well as, potentially, a film’s form?
WJ: I once worked at the offices of National Geographic, and I read their manual dictating how to make a film. The production of a program always began with images shot at great expense in various far-flung locales. Writers then composed narration to accompany the footage; their job was to tell the audience what it was seeing. With few resources at my disposal, I begin a film with words and collect images to accompany them. The distinction — explaining what is seen vs hearing or writing, then imagining, something to see — is crucial.
In the US images are routinely censored and controlled, but words circulate much more freely. It is very difficult to suppress completely any text with some claim on literary merit. This disparity favors films that may deal with sex but avoid sexually explicit images. The situation abroad is different. Australian censors refused to sanction a screening of my video The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography, simply because the title mentioned what they were supposed to be guarding against. This episode was a pointed reminder of the power of a single word.
The dictionary definition of aporia — a passage in speech or writing incorporating or presenting a difficulty or doubt — also describes a generating principle of my work. Sometimes the difficulties come from without; at other times I impose them on myself. This method strikes the conventional as perverse. For Is It Really So Strange? (2004), I couldn’t afford to license a constant stream of songs, and spectators expecting the kind of music documentary that merely advertises the recording industry were disappointed. In some quarters, I’m known as the person who takes the sex out of pornography. I prefer to concentrate on other, clandestine (though paradoxically, more chaste) desires co-present with the obvious ones.
I may be obliged to complete my current project without the use of footage from Fred Halsted’s films. I will have to rely upon interviews with his friends and colleagues, an exceedingly small bunch of survivors, some of whom are reluctant to speak to me. The only promise I can make my subjects (and one that never works on young people) is that anything they offer me has some claim on posterity.
BH: The other night I was trying to explain to someone my investment in a particular history that has been occluded by the first wave of AIDS. He accused me of being reactionary or, worse, nostalgic. (I told him I was deeply interested in what gay youth were up to but that I wasn’t persuaded to believe that they organize their identities around the sexual, embrace the still potential radicalism of that history and culture, or spend much time lost in thought about what it meant to advertise, even publish, one’s non-normative desires.) Would you say something about your work’s involvement or response to that history? Halsted would seem to stand for, even embody, powerful resonances and artesian energies now waning, if not lost.
WJ: The 1970s hold a strong fascination for me, and my chief source of impressions of that time is After Dark. Originally as a dance magazine, then under the general rubric of entertainment, After Dark provided a record of a sensibility. It served as arbiter and instruction manual for those gay men who flocked to New York as the center of the world, and who took high culture seriously even when they didn’t understand it.
From my point of view — and not just in the context of After Dark — the losers or failures are more significant than the stars. There is an inexhaustible wealth of inspiration in the work of a performer who was a bit too extreme for crossover success; in the off-kilter flash in the pan whose precise appeal eludes us today; in the hot spots, icons, and sartorial trends that proved ephemeral.
What interests me is akin to the work of classical scholars piecing together fragments of texts from antiquity. Legal problems, shady business practices, pseudonymous authorship, and a general cultural disdain have prevented us from gaining anything more than a rudimentary understanding of what gay porn is and how it has evolved over time, for example. The situation for “legitimate” gay culture (whatever that is) seems only slightly better. The deaths of so many of the participants have practically transformed researching gay life in the second half of the twentieth century into an archaeological endeavor.
From my research in the archives, I could cite myriad examples of historical sources that deserve our attention. Some of them haven’t even been catalogued or indexed yet. Now to us falls the task of making sense of it all.
7UAE Contemporary Art
Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre
July 25–September 2, 2007
Dubai’s art scene has grown at such a pace that it’s easy to be dazzled by its ambition. This summer’s show at the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Center served as a reminder of the city’s curatorial vacuum; it also, however, exposed the long-term efforts of a group of Emirati artists who — and this is unusual in the Gulf — attempt to analyze their changing social and physical environment. Rejecting the gloss of the commercial gallery and auction scene, their work remains resolutely in-progress.
Hassan Sharif, a father-figure for UAE-based conceptual and installation artists, showed a mixed bag of work — images documenting actions and performances from the 1980s and examples of the installations of squashed, bundled, and tied cardboard and other found materials that have comprised his oeuvre since the 90s.
Sharif is overdue a full-scale retrospective that properly analyzes his individual, experimental practice. His work, which he describes as “redundant repetition…a direct reaction to the increased omnipresence of consumerism,” has not been lauded by the state-run museums, nor does it fit with Dubai’s commercial gallery scene.
But Sharif has exerted considerable influence over artists’ groups in Dubai and Sharjah for a decade or more, and his 1970s-influenced legacy was evident in the installation by his brother Hussain Sharif and the land art-inspired desert interventions of Mohammed Ahmad Ibrahim and Abdullah Al Saadi.
Ibrahim’s Proposed Hole in the Mountain Project (1993) — a photo of a rocky landscape in Khorfakkan, complete with a spyhole blown out of the mountain–quietly mocked Dubai’s more outrageous developments, before they were twinkles in a property magnate’s eyes. Saadi, refreshingly, included documentation of a new work, The Ways (2007), delicate line drawings made in rock and sand on one of the artist’s many journeys around the UAE.
Mohammed Kazem was represented by his best-known work, The Windows, previously shown at the Sharjah Biennial in 2005. This study of the development of the Shangri-La Hotel, at first documented in stills from Kazem’s apartment window and later explored in photos of laborers on the site and in video of the interior, was an important, if underdeveloped, examination of a high-rise development and its impact on its surroundings and on the artist himself.
But the gathering of old favorites and new pieces — including banal doodles from the otherwise promising young artist Nuha Assad — appeared to lack a thematic approach. From its oddly worded title (‘7UAE Contemporary Art’) to the work on display, the exhibition exposed a dire need for curatorial expertise in Dubai — although this is more indicative of the dearth of educational and professional opportunities and critical appraisal (given the cheerleading nature of the local press) than of the failings of venues themselves. Artists, and their families and friends, have played a fundamental role in the UAE in bringing exploratory, noncommercial work to the fore, but the maturing art scene would now benefit from critical, independently crafted presentations.
DUCTAC (a horrible acronym) includes one of the very few public, community-focused exhibition spaces in the UAE. Situated in the behemothic Mall of the Emirates, it retains a cheesy mall aesthetic but its simple, minimal galleries and program of classes and events have potential.
And one artist did appear to rise above it all. Ebtisam Abdul Aziz has inherited Hassan Sharif’s bold stance. She shares his performative bent and critical outlook but extends her approach through a more contemporary aesthetic and a rigorous background in science and math. ‘7UAE’ included Autobiography 2003-2006, dozens of documentary stills and a video of a performance in which Abdul Aziz, dressed in a black catsuit covered in numbers and dates, wandered around a shopping mall, sat awkwardly in the shade with uniformed laborers, and eventually, like street detritus, was bagged up and dragged away. She made of her body a coded, autobiographical billboard and her wanderings a plea for individual visibility amid the UAE’s overwhelming aspirational rhetoric.
Within the next few years, Dubai is due to become home to several museums. Despite their inevitable role in furthering the city’s PRdriven image, here’s hoping they might also celebrate work that explores and critiques the Dubai Dream.
Jean-Luc Moulène: Products of Palestine
Thomas Dane Gallery
September 3-21, 2007
Tucked in the quaint Thomas Dane gallery in South Kensington, Jean-Luc Moulène’s ongoing project ‘Products of Palestine’ recently made its way to London. In this exhibition of photographs, taken between April 2002 and November 2004, Moulène presented the entirety of a series of fifty-eight images of products made in Palestine, for Palestine — ranging from olive oil, wafers, and cheese to cigarettes, medicines, and underwear.
Shot against neutral backgrounds under natural light, Moulène’s objects were writ larger than life, magnified. In removing these products from their quotidian situation and by using the codes of advertising, the artist made an unsubtle statement, attempting to ironically spark desire in the eyes of an audience. These objects are far from attainable — marginalized, nonexistent in the international market, just as their manufacturers are themselves marginalized by the political status quo. While their gleaming beauty contrasts bluntly with a reality that we know too well, the incongruity could be a productive one; the audience is bound to feel a sense of discomfort. Why make such an ugly reality a thing of beauty? Moulène’s objects left little space for indifference or passive consumption, as the audience was consistantly invited to raise questions. The photographs operated on different levels, playing with interminable possible meanings. On the other hand, could the photographs be too bluntly ironic? One equivocates and is hard pressed to conclude.
As Moulène himself acknowledged during a conversation with artist Walid Raad on the occasion of the exhibition, there is little hope for a revolutionary Palestine; the only way it can be “at peace” is under the dominion of liberal capitalism. The irony of the photographic presentation was further underscored by the fact that Moulène’s products appeared as still lives — beautiful, yes, but also ordinary, banal. Yet the images were worlds apart from the staid tradition of the still life — by virtue of their being photographs, but also because of their particular subject matter.
Interrupting the seemingly homogenized series of images of foodstuffs were Oxfam products, circulating solely within and tailored specifically for the Occupied Territories. Here one was likely to pause, for these objects stood apart from the rest, a moment of difference located on the periphery of the two large halls of the gallery. And yet, in the end, they also blended in, emblematic of an everyday emergency that has been rendered mundane.
Moulène is not the first European artist to take on the loaded political reality of Palestine, nor will he be the last. But what perhaps made his work stand out was that he also managed to make a statement about the nature of the photograph as an effective tool to document a harsh reality, along with its potentially contradictory capability — to render that very harsh reality flat by turning subjects into objets d’art rather than political objects. Again, the ambiguity was a stimulating one. Moulène was able to reel us into the intimate lives of Palestinians through the products they encounter in their daily lives. Few forms of media, few artists, have been successful in conveying the weight of the Palestinian cause without resorting to some manner of melodrama, nostalgia, or voyeurism.
Of all the products Moulène amassed, one in particular epitomized the absurdist nature of the exhibition. That image was — perhaps intentionally — located at the end of a long line. Roam in the world with one number read the Weekly in Palestine brochure. A map of the world beneath the catchy slogan reminded us of the impossibility of that command.
Shirana Shahbazi: Meanwhile
September 12–October 27, 2007
Shirana Shahbazi’s solo show at the Swiss Institute in New York featured thirteen lush, vivid photographs and one large painting. Her largest exhibition to date in the US took in portraiture and landscape, along with translations of still life painting into photography and back.
The walls of SI were painted black for the exhibit, and the lights were low, creating a climate of hushed art-historical reverence. Indeed, many of Shahbazi’s photographs employed motifs lifted from European art history. This lent the show a slightly stodgy, referential quality — the atmosphere was a cross between a diamond merchant’s showroom and the heavy arcanum of a Peter Greenaway film.
Many images in the exhibition were hung like pendants, acting on each other as psychic counterpoints. The pairs Ania-07-2005/Sango-04-2003 and Texas-01-2004/Stas-01-2005 both combined a landscape with a portrait. Sango-04-2003 featured a country road passing through wilderness; alongside it hung Ania-07-2005, in which a young woman turned her gaze out a window onto an overcast day. The portrait mingled Vermeer-like prettiness with the grittier realism of documentary photography; the effect was melancholy. Also in Texas-01-2004 and Stas-01-2005, the subjects’ heads tilted or turned away from the landscape. Through this gesture (an example of the art-historical nuance in the show), the figures were inextricably bound to the depth of the scene in their partner work.
Other subjects in the show were shot with iconic straightforwardness, like specimens or illustrations. Mineral-07-2007, Orchidee-02-2007, Schmetterling-15-2007, Schmetterling-09-2007, Frucht-01-2007 — an asteroid-like rock, a flower, a butterfly, another butterfly, and some fruits, respectively — sat front and center in the frame over a background that was either a black void (Mineral-07-2007, Schmetterling-15-2007, Schmetterling-09-2007) or a single DayGlo color (Frucht-01-2007, Orchidee-02-2007). Shahbazi presented the objects in their most basic essence, as if to simply document their very existence or to explain them to a child for the first time. This very literal presentation made art of the objects’ very existence, as if for the benefit of an alien being unfamiliar with the earth’s riches, or for a human who has forgotten them.
Also included in the exhibition, in addition to the photographs, was a large painting of a still life, based on another of Shahbazi’s photographs and executed by a team of Iranian sign painters. Featuring flowers, oyster shells, fruit, and a human skull (all standard still life fare), the painting enacted a play on borrowing and cultural origins. Shahbazi returned her borrowed form to its material roots (paint on canvas), but not by means of her own hand and without involving the form’s purported masterminds (Europeans). This rather circular translation made for a work in which hand, history, form, subject, and culture were all present, yet equally uninvested, equally disinterested. As the most structurally engaging work in the exhibition, this painting may have held a key to Shahbazi’s broader artistic praxis, otherwise occasionally obscured by the aesthetic impact of her photographic works.
Still, at times, ‘Meanwhile’ suffered from a disconnect between the drifting quality of the everyday and the aura of focused precision surrounding the works in both their execution and their presentation. At such times, the exhibition seemed opaque. In its best moments, however, the works managed to connect a tension within the photographic medium, concerning the location of truth and transparency, to a similar problem in the cultural medium. (There was an undeniable, lightly mocking “Swiss” character to many of these works selected for exhibition at the Swiss Institute.)
‘Meanwhile’ reminded viewers how difficult it can be to claim everyday forms as content, for this kind of space typically serves as an opening through which to access looser, more expressive (and thus more accurate) forms in reflexive opposition to the tyranny of onerous, monumental, historical ones. Because the nature of Shahbazi’s interest in the everyday was never fully disclosed, and because the everyday, in its essence, has no inherent character of its own, the show occasionally ran the risk of evaporating into the air of its own air.
Stalking With Stories
September 19–November 3, 2007
Antonia Majaca and Ivana Bago — the curators of ‘Stalking with Stories: The Pioneers of the Immemorable’ — may not be responsible for the present overuse of text in visual art, which reached its baroque phase at the last Whitney Biennial, but their show is symptomatic of a larger problem that plagues many philosophically drunk group shows: there’s very little to look at.
The impetus for the show was a pair of questions: “What do we remember? How do we remember and retell stories of the past?” Having read the press release, I was eager to see how the curators would work out an exhibition described as a kind of visual game of Telephone, one in which narrative would be spontaneous and take on lives of its own. But one look at the show’s accompanying brochure revealed the overconceptualizing that I feared, complete with footnotes. Enter Svetlana Boym and Giorgio Agamben; you could see that there was little room for the kind of storytelling an image can impart.
Intellectualization can be harmless enough, but in this case, academically obtuse notions of the story as simultaneously retrospective, nostalgic, and forward-looking seemed to have trumped any impulse to show works of visual art. The exhibition was sealed in a bubble; the curators (and some of the artists) may have been so concerned about potential misinterpretation that they avoided all potentially messy contact, as pleasurable as that can be.
Ahmet Ögüt’s Devrim (Revolution), 2005, and Katerina Seda’s It Doesn’t Matter, 2005, were emblematic of the exhibition’s problems. In each, the artists did the heavy lifting for both the curators and the viewer. A strenuous emphasis on text became part of the work itself, almost like another, mixed-media press release. Suggesting some insecurity on the part of the artists, their work seemed driven by an impulse to explain meaning that should have been implied.
Devrim (Revolution) was a wall drawing of text and a cheerful, purposely naive, ad-like image of a car. We were informed that it was a Devrim car, produced in Turkey, and that to publicize it, the Turkish president was taken for a ride — but the car only made it twenty feet before stopping; the engineers had forgotten to put gas in it. It Doesn’t Matter depicted the artist’s struggle to connect with her grandmother, who’s grown apathetic and withdrawn. Seda asked her to recreate the catalogue of items sold in the tool shop where she worked in socialist Czechoslovakia. A video showed the grandmother discussing the tools as she drew them and was accompanied by a book detailing each drawing and a wall text in which the artist described her motives and feelings about the task she had given to her grandmother.
These stories were certainly worth telling, but they were presented, as it were, on a one-way street, where images only served ideas and were of little value in and of themselves. With so many descriptive elements — video, drawings, and text — the works were explained to death. Seda went even a step further and literally spelled out her feelings and inner motives. So what were we left to discover? It was all there for us to consume, like a frozen dinner we could guess the taste of before we even opened the box.
The rest of the works in the show were for other reasons difficult to engage with. Zbynek Baladran’s Glossary featured a hopelessly intricate map wherein countless lofty words (“thoughts about modernity, divergent historical scenarios and a personal view of memory”) were connected, deterring the eyes with its confusion of tangled red lines. His KOLDOM showed the artist drawing a floor plan “inspired by the idea of an ideal apartment drawn by the Czech modernist architect Karel Honzik, which today is just a forgotten utopia.”
I feel infantilized walking through shows like this, where I’m either presumed dumb and condescended to or excluded completely, where either content is spoon-fed or an unreasonable degree of arcane knowledge is required to grasp the most fundamental part of the work, namely, its subject matter. Is this how curators and artists make themselves feel needed?
One exception was Felix Gmelin’s Farbtest, Die Rote Fahne II (2002), which engaged the show’s mandate in captivating fashion. Two videos were juxtaposed, one shot in 1968 showing the artist’s father and friends running through West Berlin, handing off a red flag as if in a relay race to join other activists who were never found. The other video was a recreation of the 1968 film, this time featuring the artist and his friends, shot in 2002 in Stockholm.
All the works in the show demonstrated the curators’ precise thesis: that in every new telling, stories are adjusted and “perfected,” ultimately hijacked in the interests of the moment. But Gmelin’s work was the only one that managed to synthesize idea and image — in his work, the themes of time, memory, and longing were present in the subtlest manner. In those silent, side-by-side images of idealistic and breathless young and once-young men endlessly rushing toward the camera with their vivid flags beating behind them, the simultaneity of nostalgia and the aspirations of storytelling and retelling were beautifully articulated — no explanation required.
September 30–October 25, 2007
There sometimes arrives in the arts a brief moment when everything merges — identities are lost and contexts disappear in an avalanche triggered by a complete absence of limits — a moment when culture is redefined and the horizon widens.
Videobrasil was founded in 1983 to provide a platform for the exhibition and discussion of electronic art in Brazil, South America, and the whole Southern Hemisphere. This year’s festival took “limits” as its theme and tested the manner in which they operate, investigating the edges of different audiovisual practices — video, cinema, and the visual arts. The event included installations, performances, VJs, and internet art in its program. Taking advantage of this new art au grand complet, curator Solange Farkas proposed a meditation on the high-speed promiscuity of different visual languages, acknowledging the way films, TV shows, advertising, and even pornographic images are increasingly taken from their original contexts and reshuffled into something fresh, energetic, and politically relevant through an artist’s vision and determination.
This year’s international competition included sixty-seven works from seventeen countries, representing Latin America, Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. This selection — Southern Panoramas — was divided into three branches: State of Art, dedicated to the output of major artists; Contemporary Investigations, focused on innovative research; and New Vectors, which brought together emerging names. Several works managed to investigate the nature of the image and its relationship to memory — the thin dividing line between documentary and fiction — while at the same time maintaining a vibrant, engaging, sometimes surprising presence.
Straight Stories by Moroccan Bouchra Khalili was one particularly noteworthy work. The video traveled through frontier zones and presented the exciting confusion between two different types of landscape: external geography, determined by nature and politics, and an emotional landscape, the product of the imagination and experience in a world enchanted by its own melancholy. This meeting between internal and external could be as provocative as it was attractive, such as in Film de Cul, by Brazilian director Wagner Morales. In this video a young man told a girl what he intended to do to her sexually, and she responded in the same tone; the conversation detailed this sexual adventure through words, as if we were watching an Eric Rohmer film in which the characters, instead of concentrating on their thoughts and motivations, focused on their bodily desires. Out with Jansenism, in with pure eroticism.
The curatorial decision to tackle both sum (cinema + video + art) and limit, a distinctive trait of this year’s edition, opened the door to several confrontations. With contemporary art seeking different grammars in order to exist inside and outside of accelerated appropriation processes (everything can be shown in a gallery; therefore, everything can have a good price if there’s a buyer willing to pay it), this confrontation was extremely valuable as a tactical operation.
That didn’t necessarily ensure that the results were always in line with the intentions of the artists, though; their efforts often resulted in nothing more than empty theatrics wherein, despite appearances, nothing really happened. Peter Greenaway’s Tulse Luper Suitcases (made with Marcel Odenbach and Kenneth Anger, who was one of this year’s special guests), a multimedia project structured around an installation that occupied an entire floor of “thematic” suitcases and a series of films, appearance stole all of the air in the room and essence seemed to die of asphyxiation. In spite of the technical apparatus and irate discourse, it was the same old authoritarian coup — the master artist affirmed his practice as a higher and better form of artistic expression than others. Greenaway’s didacticism took the form of a sermon on cinema’s inability to realize itself fully as art. At moments like that, Videobrasil faced the limits of its own desire for debate. Cinema + video + art is a real horizon that announces itself, a vast field for creation, a playground for the mind, but there are still those who — taking refuge behind the label of artist — want to dictate how and when one can play.
The FM Ferry Experiment
Staten Island Ferry
Chugging along between Manhattan and its less glamorous neighboring borough, the Staten Island Ferry is usually the scene of seasoned commuters wearily ignoring the snap-happy tourists who arrive in droves for their Kodak moment with the Statue of Liberty. But last September, alert passengers would have noticed an unexpected intrusion: a mobile radio station had set up operations on the Hurricane Level. A stream of artists, performers, lecturers, and the generally curious passed through; highlights included a “24-Minute Marathon” cello performance and an a cappella singing group who volunteered their talents on the spot. Those who had a radio handy could catch the experimental sound programming between live shows. Bright blue posters in the background announced these covert sound activities to be part of The FM Ferry Experiment, a series of eight live weekend broadcasts conceptualized and orchestrated by neuroTransmitter.
The work that Angel Nevarez and Valerie Tevere produce under the name neuroTransmitter is more than just fun and games aboard the Spirit of America. Their soundworks, installations, videos, and audio prototypes are modest infiltrations into that ambiguous and dwindling commodity we call public space, interrogations of the way it has been seamlessly parceled out among corporate powers and under government control. Mobile transmission and its public are an ongoing interest, developed in earlier works such as the Communiport, a portable radio transmitter that fits into a backpack. (The unit was later put to good use in The Lower Power to Higher Power Broadcast Media Tour, where prerecorded programs were broadcast to an audience of radio-equipped protestors at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York.)
In the case of The FM Ferry Experiment, they continued their work on radio as a medium and thematic concern while drawing on historic precedents from a more radical time. The pirate offshore enterprise Radio Caroline is one example. Founded as Britain’s first nonstop pop radio station in 1964, it braved the Atlantic waters for decades in order to evade the reach of British radio laws. The 1967 New York Avant Garde Festival is another precursor. Engineered by Charlotte Moorman, who had made headlines that year for playing the cello topless, the festival took over the ferry for a forty-eight-hour marathon of performances. The thirtieth anniversary of that festival was celebrated onboard this year with an interview with one of its participants, artist and filmmaker Jud Yalkut, whose reminiscences were interspersed with sound clips of what appeared to be phone messages from 1967. Or did I get my frequencies crossed with WPS1 Art Radio?
While things have changed since Carolee Schneemann’s seabound pink foam labyrinths and the outlaw ethos of Radio Caroline, for many artists the idea of resistance still hovers tantalizingly on the horizon. The medium of sound promises powerful tools by way of its ephemeral nature, its evasion of art’s classic modes of instrumentalization — the fickle pleasures of viewing and owning — and, in the case of radio, its ability to encompass both mass media and high art. Radio’s revival as a medium seems to hinge on the very idea of its obsolescence: the poetry of modernism’s scrapheap, the economy of recycling and repurposing, and the frisson of accumulated histories. neuroTransmitter’s radio work includes Berlin-based radio WUNP, the sound platform for unitednationsplaza, which offers its recorded programs for distribution to other radio stations — as cassette tapes. In such formats, their work appears as both a critical reevaluation of media histories and a meditation on the aesthetics of inaccessibility, resistance that is aimed against prevailing systems.
FM Ferry Experiment functioned within that context of utopian goals and post-medium conditions, but it succeeded as an experiment on a more practical level: it actually happened. “We wondered,” Tevere said, “how far can you go, working through a process?” Undaunted by the bureaucratic hurdles of dealing with the Department of Transport, the student radio station of the College of Staten Island, where Tevere teaches (WSIA-FM hosted their program, providing a radio license), and various funding organizations, the artists managed to press mundane zones of transport and leisure into the service of their own, more open-ended ideas — producing an unusual experience of mass reception that was, unlike their pirate radio predecessors’ experiments, completely legitimate.
neuroTransmitter’s radio programming also suggested more recent notions of curating in time rather than space, engaging the attention of audiences through a built-in participatory element. Their playlists collided sound, radio, public space, bodies of water, and transport. Music tracks ranged from Donna Summer’s “Down Deep Inside” to Leadbelly’s “Haul Away Joe,” while live guests included a host of like minded artists and speakers: radio theater group 31 Down performing their play Innocent Eavesdropper; Bojidar Yanev discussing the management of New York’s 2,000plus bridges; Brooke Singer presenting 800 Steps Apart, her work on Lower Manhattan air pollution; and Emily Jacir and Jamal Rayyis musing on Manhattan street food in their Falafel Chronicles. On my visit to the top deck, Ralf Homann’s Monoshow roped me into the proceedings with what just might be the world’s oldest radio-talk-show gambit: “What would you take with you if you were going to be stranded on a desert island?” Under the circumstances, I had to choose my radio.
The Seasons of Tell-Al Hejara
Almakan Arts Society
August 16-27, 2007
In the 1960s and 70s, Damascus hosted a constellation of innovative artists and intellectuals who gathered around the brilliant, prickly figure of Fateh Moudarres (a photograph of Moudarres, furrowed brow and all, still hangs in the studios of his students). Today, the city’s art scene is often overlooked — dismissed as retrograde by ostensibly more cosmopolitan artists in neighboring countries. Still, there are things happening. The recently opened Ayyam Gallery has been supplying Christie’s with a bounty of Syrian work, old and new. Aleppo has its own international photography festival. And one exhibition held this past summer, ‘The Seasons of Tell-Al Hejara,’ provided a rare glimpse into some of the more interesting work being produced in Syria, along with the conditions of production.
An epiphenomenal event organized by Mustafa Ali, Syria’s most famous living sculptor, ‘The Seasons’ opened with a group show at his atelier/NGO. Student paintings were hung side by side with those of modern masters. A plinth in the center of the room held an abundance of clay and metal works in various states of torque. The centerpiece of the evening, however, was the walking tour that followed. A mixed crowd of expat diplomat types, local arts lovers, and students followed Ali as he threaded through the dark streets, visiting the small artists’ enclave that exists within Damascus’s old city, an area once inhabited by the city’s Jewish families, then abandoned, and now undergoing gentrification. With Ali in the lead knocking on doors, the tour entered the work spaces of fourteen artists within one small footprint of dilapidated urban terrain. The hope was that visitors would engage these secret spaces over time and at their own pace; a timetable was circulated that indicated the days and times when one could make return visits.
One of the most valuable aspects of ‘The Seasons’ and its staging was the casual ease with which it treated private and public space, especially set against a framework for cultural production that is often tightly regulated by the state and the logic of “people’s palace” exhibition halls and registered artist associations. Inverting the usual trajectory of consciousness-raising art events, it moved from the street into the atelier, accessing and acknowledging a rich interior life for unassuming and seemingly unaffiliated artists.
Ali’s own sculptures suggested an iconographic program of epic proportions, solemnly reworking the 7,000 years of local artistic production Syrians profess as heritage, from the lumpy clay of Ugarit to Picasso’s riffs on the manuscript paintings of al-Wasiti, a medieval miniaturist. Although largely unsatisfying taken individually (lots of cages and primitive bestial forms) they did important work by stylizing the exhibition’s temporal structure, suggesting the archeological processes of excavation and sedimentation — those workhorse contingencies that make things interesting.
In another studio, Edward Shahda, a magical realist and admirer of icons and cultic compositions, was touching up some peculiar landscape views. The crowd milled around him. Sculptor and painter Fadi Yazigi displayed a new series of tabletop bronze figurines. Compact animal bodies bore overscale human craniums, sightless eyes, and archaic smiles. Such spooky objects introduced a sphinx-like uneasiness into Yazigi’s usual delusional aesthetic, all grins and cartoon lines.
Also of note were Ghassan Nana’s paintings. These canvases were preternaturally beautiful. Displayed inside niches, the paintings featured gauzy oil glazes that built up the suggestion of women standing in Early Renaissance-like groups. Nana’s studio, as pristine and quiet as a church, heightened the theatrics of trespassing already inherent to the tour format. Every image in the room was acutely moving.
I don’t want to pretend — much of the art in these neighborhood studios felt anachronistic.
For one, artistic strategies like interventions and relational aesthetics aren’t necessarily compelling in this life, in this old city. An element of irony was missing in the assembled works, a deficiency that Clement Greenberg (an anachronistic choice of a theorist) might help to explain. Marshalling his faith in avant-gardism as a force against kitsch and fascism in the 1930s, Greenberg wrote that “Stalinists” have a problem with the avant garde not because avant garde work is too critical, but because it is too innocent. It is too difficult to corrupt by injecting it with propaganda; it cannot be used for anything but its own ends. The overriding formalist aesthetic at ‘Tell-Al Hejara’ may have come from this need for integrity; its honor certainly remained intact (even as it started to look a bit kitschy). The art was one part inoculation against decades of image-based propaganda and one part assimilation of a Syrian socialism that is ill at ease with signs of chummy relations between art and commerce.
The best work on view was a camel’s head sculpture by Nour Aslia, on display in the group exhibition at Ali’s studio. Hung in the corner, it looked like an old, desiccated cow pie. It was totally abject: great lumps of plaster, patted into form and coated with a rusty cinnabar pigment, which was rubbed and abraded from the crevices of the material. Such formal carelessness is not the way fine art tends to work in Syria. But the artist — a young unknown — went for it, and that made everything feel right.
How Nancy Wished That Everything Was an April Fool’s Joke
August 30-August 31, 2007
No one named Nancy plays a role in How Nancy Wished That Everything Was an April Fool’s Joke. April Fool’s Day isn’t mentioned either, though some may recall that Lebanon’s civil war started in April 1975.
Slapdash as its title may seem, the latest theater piece by Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué and his collaborator Fadi Toufiq was exacting, at times amusing, and ultimately profound. A veritable Fire Sermon on how communitarian politics seduces and wastes both ideals and ignorance Nancy continued the genre-splicing experiments of Mroué’s earlier work.
Like many of the plays Mroué has made with his partner, Lina Saneh, Nancy eschewed the antiquated theater conventions of plot, action, and characterization. It favored monologue, the simplest narrative form, as mediated by technology — by, specifically, the video screens integral to Samar Maakaron’s stage design. Monologue and monitor acted as mutually reinforcing metaphors for Mroué’s concern with mediation and identity.
Conceptual as Nancy was, though, old-fashioned storytelling still drove the work. Its four characters — played by Ziad Antar, Hatem Imam, Saneh, and Mroué himself — were all Lebanese citizens and civil war militants. They took turns recounting their experiences from the beginning of the civil war in 1975 to January 2007, when street-level sectarian conflict briefly returned to Beirut.
There wasn’t much action. The characters sat snugly beside one another on a couch, speaking only to the audience. At no point did they address one another. Their overlapping accounts sometimes differed, and Saneh’s character at times interjected different dates — whether to correct one anecdote’s chronology or to underline historical motifs, such as Israeli invasions (1978 and 1982) and sectarian massacres (1860 and 1983).
Suspended above the stage were four large rectangular screens, featuring larger-than-life portraits that changed to reflect different phases in each character’s political career. Designed by Maakaron, these were modeled on a collection of civil war-era political posters compiled by graphic artist Zeina Maasri.
These political poster-portraits were significant because all four characters changed their party affiliations several times during the course of the play. As the action progressed, each was killed, only to be reanimated and killed again.
Mroué’s oeuvre is complex, referencing a range of subjects including Lebanese history and politics and European and American artistic practice. His ideas are best realized in his plays, but those are of a piece with his audiovisual work, in which portraiture sometimes makes a strange alliance with death. Witness the 2003 video Bir-Rouh bid-Damm, wherein grainy images obliterated the individuality of mourners at a Muslim funeral. In the 2006 exhibition ‘Hadith: Conversation,’ the artist playfully recreated several masterworks of conceptual art. In each, Mroué either juxtaposed acts of individual eccentricity with images of the mass political rallies that took place in downtown Beirut in the spring and summer of 2005 (Self Portrait as Fountain and Leap into the Void) or else addressed issues of “essential” sexual (and, here, religious) identity (Conversion). His self-referential works chose (inherently individualistic) artistic practice over the sort of group-think embodied in communitarian politics.
Far from being mere ornament, the audiovisual component of Nancy played off the characters’ performances to create a hybrid of theater and installation art.
Antar’s character, for instance, related that after he was killed in 1976, “the Communist Party asked me to apply for membership, so they could print a black and white poster of me.” His image appeared with the slogan, “The Hero of Sannine, comrade Hatem Imam.” When he was killed again later on in the war, his body was claimed by a Palestinian organization.
Issues of representation and celebrity-consciousness were a leitmotif among the male characters. Mroué’s character described how, after being killed the first time, he became close to party chief Dany Chamoun and met stars like Charles Aznavour and Julio Eglesias, who wanted to be photographed with him. He was famous.
After being killed again, in a Hizbullah attack on South Lebanese Army positions, Mroué remarked, “Around five years later I had the chance to watch this operation on a video Hizbullah had made….I bought it at the book fair in Beirut.”
The paradox at the core of the political posters was compounded as the dead went on to die again and again. Each character’s individuality was subsumed within a religious group identity, and the martyrs’ posters become celebrity photos for the politicized sect into which they were absorbed.
As the four tales converged upon the same point in time, the communal confrontations of January 26, 2007, the characters gravitated to the same landmark — the Murr Tower, an infamous civil war–era sniper’s nest. The four screens portrayed a single image, a panoramic view of Beirut, the tower at its center. The human characters were gone.
10th Istanbul Biennial
September 8–November 4, 2007
Visitors to the tenth edition of the Istanbul Biennial this year could easily have been overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of artwork on display. Parallel events throughout the city, along with a hefty biennial program featuring over one hundred artists, made for an art-going experience that was more daunting than inspirational. Curator Hou Hanru’s ambitious title set the tone: ‘Not Only Possible, But Also Necessary — Optimism in the Age of Global War.’
The biennial’s official exhibition was divided among three venues, two near the main contemporary cultural center of the city and one in an underused market area close to historical sites and next to the city’s ancient aqueduct. Antrepo No 3, a cavernous customs warehouse no longer in use, hosted works exploring “global trading, migration, and border crossing.” The Ataturk Cultural Center (AKM) hosted ‘Burn It or Not?,’ an exhibition focusing on “questions of social progress of modernity,” referring to a current controversy about the building’s own fate. Meanwhile, the Istanbul Textile Traders’ Market (IMC) opted to study “models of production, consumption, and economic development.”
At times the heavy-handedness of thematic headings for each venue bore down on the selection of works. Of the three venues, Antrepo No 3 provided the most cohesive offering and also functioned as a hub of the biennial. Unfortunately, while the overall installation of the building was entertainingly maze-like, competing audio works and a series of cumbersome, large-scale presentations created a bombardment of visual texture and sound. The audio component of works such as those by Gimhongsok and Ramon Mateos, similar in aesthetic and concept, were at times impossible to distinguish. Cao Fei’s RMB City, a proposal for a virtual zone in the style of Second Life, took up valuable exhibition space with brash computer-generated imagery on ad-style banners. Similarly, Alexandre Périgot’s Soundborders, an interesting collection of musical compositions, was hamstrung by the series of rotating floor discs that one had to negotiate in order to hear them. These more dominant, bulky installations overshadowed subtler works that, when given space, surfaced as the sought-after moments of optimism.
Justin Bennett’s noise mappings, a series of precise cacophonies of collected sounds from his time spent as an artist-in-residence in Istanbul, conveyed the shifting history of a city in flux. One of his pieces left the entrance stairwell vibrating with the sum of Istanbul’s urban pulse, conveying a sense of occasion and anticipation for ascending visitors. His other sound installations were more modestly presented on headphones in locations that allowed expansive views of the Bosporus, transporting audiences beyond the city’s physical grasp. Jennifer Allora and Guillerma Calzadilla’s There Is More Than One Way to Skin a Sheep (2007) featured the tulum, a folk wind instrument from the mountainous Kaçkar region of Turkey, evoking the increasing numbers leaving the eastern part of the country and moving to its main cities. In the video, the tulum’s notes were played through a bicycle wheel to add air to its flat tire. It is a melancholic, if not poetic, tale of migration.
A work that was almost lost in the shadow of larger installations was Emre Hüner’s Panoptikon (2005). Composed of a selection of drawn objects united in a video of imaginary animated worlds, his colorful sets hearkened back to Ottoman-era miniatures as well as to scientific invention and war. In the Ataturk Cultural Center another of Hüner’s video works, Boumont (2006), was more constructively installed. The video anticipated a pessimistic future; a dark trawl through the city’s many deserted industrial areas served as a powerful antithesis to the building’s (now dated) modernist hopes and principles. Incidentally, AKM is one of the most impressive works of modern architecture in the city, and while the biennial offered an opportunity to bring its impressive interior to life, the didactic and visually repetitive nature of some works there proved draining.
The exhibition at IMC presented a similar problem of overcrowding in a complicated context. Artist Chen Chieh-jen was one of few who managed to overcome these constraints of space, positioning himself in one of the market’s main thoroughfares and selling pirated versions of his own videos.
And that was only a taste of the biennial proper. Although the live arts potential of AKM was overlooked, there were several performance events during the opening days that were not to be missed. At Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center, an event initiated by artist Cevdet Erek saw his band Nekropsi playing on different levels of the building. In those spaces, wired so that each artist could play his instrument individually, audiences could experience the band as a series of intimate and very personal interventions. Meanwhile, all four parts came together in unison via speakers installed in the courtyard.
Platform provided a good portion of the other highlights, including an open studio day for artists-in-residence, along with Mladen Stilinovic’s gallery show ‘Subtracting of Zeroes,’ which managed to represent with humor political trauma and upheaval in works composed of an array of bank notes, found objects, photographs, statements, and sums all adding up to zero.
Istanbul’s newest commercial gallery, Rodeo, is located in an old tobacco warehouse that was one of the venues of the 9th Istanbul Biennial. The revamped space presented its first exhibition with exquisite new commissions by Hüseyin Alptekin and Christodoulos Panayiotou, as well as a permanent installation by Ahmet Ögüt of poured asphalt that turned the ground floor into a generous play area for local children. The city’s sprawling Istanbul Modern Museum featured the last twenty years of the biennial’s history with a chronological, best-of-the-best approach, while ‘Modern and Beyond,’ the inaugural exhibition at santralistanbul, surveyed the last fifty years of art in Turkey. More straightforward in scope, these exhibitions helped to contextualize the various art scenes of Istanbul — a critical engagement with the local element so often missing from biennials worldwide. Finally, the more personal and very local art initiative PiST strove to bring everything together by providing information on artists as well as producing LiST; their map and listings brochure were coveted like gold by those trying to navigate the dizzying maze of art strewn across the city.
August 18–October 21, 2007
Contour, the biennial of the moving image, takes place in the Flemish city of Mechelen, renowned for its high gothic cathedral and fifteenth-century town square. For the third year running, the event went to lengths to use the city itself as an element of the exhibition. Works were installed in twelve locations, with a guide indicating the history, original function, and contemporary use of each site — including a former hospital dating back to 1200, a sixteenth-century court of justice, a nineteenth century meat market, and a former gardening shop.
The event’s curator, Nav Haq, avoided the temptation to over-thematize these locations, focusing instead on a precise and legible match between the technical requirements of each piece — in terms of light, sound, and the dimensions of the single, split, and multi-screen installations — and the layout of the space. It was a revelation to watch Gabriel Lester’s Nightshade — a nostalgic black and white eulogy to the quirky, melancholic elegance of Flemish cities, with their shabby glamour — in the auditorium of the Pastoraal Centrum, and to see the reflections of Carsten Höller’s hyperactive Flicker Film, with its three overlapping projects bouncing off the polished black floor of the meat market.
‘Decoder’ was the subtitle for this edition of Contour, reflecting a curatorial interest in the transmission of information via the moving image and the manner in which that information is in turn received and interpreted by audiences. Certain works explicitly pondered this thematic: Gerard Byrne’s 1984 and Beyond, for example, involved actors bringing to life a conversation that once took place between science fiction writers, originally published in a 1963 edition of Playboy — the relay of the textual information between the different media, and the laughably off-the-mark predictions for the future made by these specialists, produced a sort of crisis of credibility. So too with Cédric Noël’s multiscreen installation of individuals, each giving an eyewitness account of different events in a manner that suggested they were in some way connected. And in Interview with Saskia Holmkvist, the artist allowed herself to be trained in the language of media presentation — taking tips on the correct posture, body language, tone of voice, and level of eye contact required to read out a prepared statement on the question of authenticity in her work.
Rosalind Nashashibi and Hassan Khan both revisited their own material, exploring the idea of artwork as an archive of visual information that can signify differently depending on the scenario and manner in which it’s presented. Nashashibi’s Bachelor Machines Part 2 twinned footage of previous works with a nutty monologue on the nature of Christianity, Western materialism, and machines, while Khan gained distance from an old series of “embarrassing” filmed improvisations with actors by projecting them alongside explanatory texts and blocks of primary color. Nashashibi’s Flash in the Metropolitan, a collaboration with Lucy Skaer, was shot in New York’s Metropolitan Museum at night using a flashing light, so that the artifacts on display materialized for an instant, then vanished. The work explored the fragmentary nature of museum exhibits and the displacement of their elements from the “greater reality” of their origins.
Several of the projects subtly engaged with the city and its residents. Omer Fast’s De Grote Boodschap, for example, read like a bizarre trailer for a new Mechelen-based soap opera, using a cast of local characters who performed ambiguous roles in a shifting space, touching on questions of intergenerational and race relations. And Mechelen’s historic, colorful, and sometimes comical parades had an airing, courtesy of artists Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska, who excavated the archives of local film clubs Mecina and KFKM.
‘Contour,’ with its compact scale, modest rhetoric, and thoughtfully selected works, felt like an antidote to the often overblown, unrealized ambitions of larger biennials. It appeared to prove that there is mileage in the biennial format yet. Given the right curatorial approach — the biennial’s temporaneity, the opportunities the format provides for site-specific work, for opening up new exhibition spaces, and for seeing work through the prism of a new city — can prove ideal.
October 17-24, 2007
Most large visiting groups who pass through Palestine come with their UN logos prominently displayed. But this past October, a mixed group of artists, architects, planners, and curators from around the world came to the West Bank for a series of self-styled “gatherings” — exhibitions and discussions under the umbrella of the second Riwaq Biennale.
Artist and biennale director Khalil Rabah has pointed out that theirs was potentially the first biennale to take place in a country under occupation. Rather than bring the standard biennale format to Ramallah, he and organizers sought to embark on a two-year exploration, a radical platform to develop ideas that was more process-oriented than exhibition-oriented in nature. But how, artistically or critically, could this be achieved? How could the biennale stand apart from the myriad initiatives introduced to Palestine by international money and “goodwill”? After all, this land is no stranger to projects that are one-off in nature, that lack any real continuity.
Riwaq, the organization, was founded in 1991 by a group of Palestinian architects and conservationists, who thought of restoration as the most powerful of political tools and were intent on developing a survey of historical buildings in Palestine. Since that start, the organization has grown substantially and is now active in almost every village in the West Bank. Preservation, in this context, can indeed be a form of resistance.
One of the central elements of the biennale “gatherings” was a series of coach tours to outlying villages and to Hebron, Jenin, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem, narrated by Riwaq representatives and other architects and planners. It seemed that every inch of land, every building, whether standing or rubble, every olive grove, village, road, and checkpoint, was a potential point of discussion, debate, and reflection. Tiny, obscure details — such as the fact that the Dead Sea sparrow is endangered, that tunnels under Jerusalem hide the Arab part of the city, that the wall facing Israeli roads is decoratively textured (compared to the bleak imposition on the other side) — circulated within the body of the coach.
The artists — among them London-based duo Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar (otherwise known as The Otolith Group), Sanja Ivekovic from Zagreb and Jose Davila from Mexico — were brought together to speak about their work, make work, or, in some cases, to arrange to come back and make work.
The biennale’s partner organizations facilitated an impressive schedule of satellite events, including an exhibition of On Kawara’s Pure Consciousness date paintings installed in a kindergarten looking over Bethlehem, organized by ArtSchool Palestine and the Ikon Gallery, and an installation of Palestinian video art curated by ArtSchool Palestine’s Samar Martha. The latter included Mona Hatoum’s Measures of Distance, shown for the first time in Palestine, and the seminal Chic Point by Sharif Waked. The eight-day gathering, designed to kick-start a two-year series of workshops, exhibitions and projects in Palestine in 2007 and 2008, culminated in a symposium at Birzeit University, with trips, parties, and receptions in between.
The last section of the Biennale Symposium at Birzeit University, following sessions on planning, architecture and geopolitics, and heritage and conservation, consisting of a number of artists introducing their work, may have been the weakest point of the week. A few exceptions: artists Lida Abdul and Olaf Nicolai, for example, spoke eloquently about their own work. But still, many of the artists seemed unable to gauge the audience — consisting of delegates, architecture and planning scholars, and art students from the inaugural courses at the new International Art Academy of Palestine — and some even appeared to assume an occasionally apathetic approach to the event.
In the end, it’s easy to fall into the trap of imagining that this is a country like any other. The Palestinian experience is unremittingly fluid; exceptional experiences, both organizational and conceptual, are inevitable, and for that reason, the gatherings themselves were an exhibition of sorts. They were also an achievement. As biennales proliferate and their homogenous nature is increasingly questioned by critics, Riwaq may stand a chance to revolutionize the form — or at least lend some nuance to it.
September 15–November 11, 2007
In Britain, 2007 is the year of Abolition 200, a commemoration of Parliament’s abolition of the slave trade. Although it was to be a further three decades until slavery itself was finally abolished in Britain’s Caribbean colonies, 1807 marked a significant point in the abolitionists’ campaign.
In some ways, ‘Port City’ could be bracketed with assorted events commemorating the abolition bicentennial, though, to its considerable credit, the exhibition put a refreshing amount of clear water between itself and much of the other abolitionist fare on offer.
The exhibition took as its starting point the persuasive, if familiar, idea that many of the capitalist impulses that led to the transatlantic slave trade are still with us today under the somewhat less pejorative guise of the “free market.”
Bristol’s present-day wealth and importance owe much to its history as a trading city, slaves being one of the port’s most valuable commodities. And Arnolfini is located within a historic building that sits in the heart of Bristol’s original dock area. Put simply, the gallery gave ‘Port City’ one hell of a context.
The exhibition repeatedly exhorted the viewer to consider the extent to which today’s sophisticated trade routes, delivering no end of consumer products, rely on sizable pools of cheap and impoverished labor. Furthermore, this cheap labor has to be ruthlessly kept in place and in check, in order for the “free” market to operate with maximum profit.
In that context, the images of economic refugees used by various artists in the exhibition represented an emphatic challenge to the existing world order. Perhaps the most striking examples of this deviance were to be seen in Ursula Biemann’s Sahara Panels, a series of aerial photographs that charted the determined migration of sub-Saharan Africans toward Europe (and the equally determined efforts of the Moroccan authorities to stymie that migration).
Economic migrants refuse to remain quarantined and thus pose a threat to the world’s more affluent countries. Free movement, holidays, and cheap air travel are luxuries reserved for the world’s pampered and privileged minority. In real terms, the free movement of cheap labor threatens the very foundations of the free market. Unfortunately, ‘Port City’ tried too hard to make its point. Far too many artists were corralled into too little space; the exhibition’s poignant issues could have had even greater clarity and depth if represented by fewer contributions.
In one gallery, works by Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, William Pope.L, and Yto Barrada — showing large monochrome photographs of exhausted migrants resting en route to their anticipated land of milk and honey — vied for attention with an expansive sculptural piece by Meschac Gaba.
In part, the exhibition’s difficulties lay in a predictable over-reliance on audiovisual work. Ursula Biemann’s installation Sahara Chronicles, for example, a looping series of short videos documenting the sub-Saharan exodus toward Europe, consisted of seven monitors and four projections, presented in one gallery that was crowded with competing sounds and images. We could only view the work as an installation in which specific words, voices, sentences, and images were rendered largely inaccessible or of lesser value.
Meschac Gaba emerged as the star of the show. Sweetness, his large floor piece, mapped out an imaginary port city that included many of the world’s most recognizable landmarks — the Empire State Building, Sydney Opera House, Eiffel Tower, Cathedral of Brasilia, and so on — all rendered in white sugar.
Sugar was introduced to European consumers as, among other things, a sweetener for tea and coffee, newly introduced drinks that were gaining in popularity. It rapidly became, and remains, one of the most traded commodities in the world. But its production relied on farming practices and plantation slavery that plunged Africa into unimaginable depths of genocide and misery. Gaba reminded us that we in the world’s wealthier countries are all, in one way or another, complicit in the continued exploitation of cheap labor.
What a shame therefore that Sweetness was presented in a way that played down — by striking viewers first and foremost as being quirky and novel rather than emphasized its sinister and menacing message.
In general, ‘Port City’ succeeded in getting its message across but did so at the expense of individual artists’ contributions.
London is the Place for Me
October 3–November 24, 2007
An impressive new addition to the fashionable Shoreditch area of East London opened its doors in October. Launch events culminated in a party that had revelers queuing in a line that stretched around the block. Multicolored lights gleaming from windows high above punctured the lattice-structured facade of the black concrete building, one of the first visual arts centers to be created by architect David Adjaye and his design team. At a cost of £8 million, funded jointly by Arts Council England, Barclays Bank, and other corporate donors, Rivington Place is home to two London-based arts organizations, the Institute of International Visual Arts (Iniva) and Autograph ABP (the Association of Black Photographers), which existed previously as gallery-less agencies.
Rivington Place has been seven years in the pipeline, but the history that brought Iniva and Autograph into being goes back to the desire to establish a permanent base for the black arts movement in the 1980s. The opening of the new building is as much about that history as it is about the future of diaspora arts and artists in the capital.
While Autograph ABP has occupied a critical place in visual culture and cultural studies, in part because of its links with photojournalism, Iniva has arguably occupied a more compromised position. The organization emerged from the black arts movement of the 80s but was founded on the promise that it would not position itself as a “black art gallery,” as 198 Gallery in Brixton had done. Its place in the London art world has not always been clear, but the organization now finds its identity occasionally contested, particularly given the art market’s flirtation with identity and difference and the increasingly globalized and decentralized nature of the art world.
From the vantage of the twenty-first century, Iniva’s name appears problematic: what does its internationalism stand for now, particularly given the global success of Tate Modern, the Frieze Art Fair, and the London art market in general, plus the birth of other centers linking the local with the global, such as the Rich Mix Cultural Foundation? In the immediate post-war era of mass migration, the presence in London of artists as diverse as Francis Newton de Souza from India, Rasheed Araeen from Pakistan, Aubrey Williams from Guyana, Roland Moody from Jamaica, and Gavin Jantjes from South Africa punctured the otherwise suffocating parochialism of an English art world that played second fiddle to theater and opera. As Kobena Mercer recently pointed out, in contrast to cities such as Paris, Berlin, and New York, international modernism seemed to hit only Britain, particularly London, in 2000 with the opening of Tate Modern. The nature of Iniva’s problematic identity is significant as a symptom of the problematic place of internationalism in twentieth-century English cultural politics.
Perhaps it is no accident, then, that Iniva’s greatest success to date, as a consultancy and agency, has been in publishing Annotations, a series of books devoted to artists engaged with questions of difference. Without this series, there might be no creative “running room” for artists to question the place from which difference has been and might continue to be articulated.
Rivington Place’s launch exhibition, ‘London is the Place for Me,’ jointly curated by Iniva and Autograph, attempted to engage with this dialectic. The Barclays Project Space was reserved for Dinu Li’s series of photographs of recent migrants calling home in commercial phone booths. Press The Star Then Say Hello was inspired by Samuel Selvon’s novel The Lonely Londoners (1956) but actually placed more emphasis on a form of portraiture than on the connections between these people and the spaces of London as a city of dreams and myths, as was suggested by the publicity material.
The calypso poet Lord Kitchener’s song that forms the title of the exhibition became mournful seen in the light of the moving image work shown in the blacked-out space upstairs: Mona Hatoum’s Measures of Distance (1988), Keith Piper’s Go West Young Man (1996), and Harold Offeh’s Alien at Large, Oxford (2001) were familiar meditations on the idea of home as a contested condition, but this project exhibition signalled an important shift.
In conversation, Stuart Hall, chairman of Iniva, suggested that there is great potential in providing visibility for artists who remain outside the canon — by curating a retrospective of Frank Bowlings’s paintings, the visibility of pre-1990s black British artists is extended. This is necessary and laudable. But Iniva’s greatest strength arguably lies in its potential to show, for example, Birmingham-based artists such as Barbara Walker or Andrew Jackson alongside canonical names like Steve McQueen, Isaac Julien, and, from the US, the likes of Ellen Gallagher and David Hammons. Its strength, in other words, is its potential to act as a zone that straddles the local and the global within the diaspora experience.
HADETU: A Biography of a Communist Organization
By Mahmoud El Wardany
Dar El Hilal, 2007
Egyptian novelist Mahmoud El Wardany’s latest adventure is a risky one. A history of one of the most important organizations of the Egyptian left, HADETU: A Biography of a Communist Organization is an endeavor that the author rightfully likens to “entering a minefield.” El Wardany himself, as those in the know are aware, was once affiliated with a leftist organization, and one that was HADETU’s primary ideological competition within the Marxist camp. His position is therefore a charged one.
HADETU stands apart from the numerous other books taking on the Egyptian left, most of which are published by sympathetic or, alternatively, opposing organizations. HADETU was published by the official state-owned Dar-El-Hilal, and one can’t help but wonder, Why now? Has this history finally ceased to be a source of anxiety for both the powers that be and the remnants of the various Marxist groups that are still active in Egyptian cultural life? Anxieties aside, the book emerges against a shifting backdrop: the left wing’s decline as an oppositional bloc with a meaningful connection to the masses, and the simultaneous ascension of the religious right.
From the beginning, El Wardany offers that he is not interested in “historicization” or in evaluating HADETU’s performance, political positions, or relationship to fellow leftist organizations. Instead, he states that his main aim is “to retrieve the tremendous energy, urgency and presence that the Egyptian Nationalist Movement experienced between the end of the 30s and 1965, the year the Communist parties dissolved themselves.” In this he is largely successful. The book manages to present the numerous and sometimes conflicting voices within the movement, while resisting the tendency to promote fixed meanings. Testimonies by the rank and file of the party and inspirational anecdotes (one features the mother of one of the workers- turned-revolutionaries, who provided a safe house, tricking the Brit- ish and allowing workers disguised as fishermen to enter Port Said to join the popular resistance in 1956) are mixed with the more theoretical testimonies of the leaders and architects of the movement.
Still, the author fails to answer some of the very questions he raises. For example, why were divisions and splits endemic to the movement? While he describes such splintering as “a genetic disorder,” he never really explores the causes for such a tendency. Meanwhile, essential questions are by turns obscured and exaggerated as El Wardany constructs a grand historical narrative in 500-plus pages. (Although he claims to address the general reader, the text occasionally exhausts that same reader with superfluous details.)
Indeed, HADETU sometimes appears to be aimed at a specific “interpretive community” of leftist groups and concerned historians. When El Wardany flatters some of the movement’s leaders through banal descriptions, of the “sincerest of activists” variety, we suspect that the author has been influenced by a (perhaps un- conscious) desire for that community’s approval. When the reader questions the author’s motives, the work begins to fail.
Unable to provide a serious critique of their shared core beliefs, El Wardany regurgitates the polemics of HADETU’s different leaders (including Dr Refaat El Saed, Fakhry Labib, and Ahmed Hamroush). Such regurgitation is most glaring as he addresses some of the most loaded subjects in regional history, such as the 1947 partition of Palestine and founding HADETU member Henri Curiel’s (1913-1978) curious pro-partition position regarding the Arab- Israeli conflict. El Wardany, inexplicably, indulges in an emotional and defensive appeal on behalf of Curiel.
Some of the author’s choices are fascinating but remain largely unexplored. In the end, though, HADETU does manage to raise pertinent questions. Thorny issues such as squandered political opportunities, the decision to dissolve the party in 1965, and the role of the movement in the popular resistance to the 1956 tripartite aggression are at least broached. His treatment of archetypal events, such as the short-lived 1957 unification of leftist organizations, captures the contradictions of the movement. In that case, promise, optimism, and faith in the future were compromised by poor planning and a legacy of mutual suspicion and doubt. El Wardany’s portrait of a fractured left is a revealing and valuable one.
Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation
By Eyal Weizman
In 1692, the brilliant and eccentric English astronomer Edmund Halley formally presented his fantastical theory that the world was hollow to the Philosophical Transactions of Royal Society of London. This idea — which predated Halley’s predictions about the orbit of his namesake comet — postulated that the earth was a hollow shell within which were four inner concentric shells, each with its own magnetic pole, each rotating at its own speed, and each separated from the others by its own special layer of atmosphere.
Halley’s hypothesis, known as the hollow earth theory, has provided fodder for science fiction writers, conspiracy theorists, adventure-seeking travelers, mystics, pseudoscientists, and crackpots throughout the ages; greats such as Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Thomas Pynchon were inspired by it, as were lesser luminaries such as the creators of Indiana Jones and the Transformers: Cybertron cartoon series. Two centuries after it was definitively debunked by science, the theory is a lingering source of romantic possibility for those who trouble to ponder the earth’s composition.
But it was not pseudoscientific speculation that led Israeli architect Eyal Weizman to write a book named for and inspired by Halley’s hollow earth theory; it’s the grim multidimensional reality of Israel’s occupation and separation policies in the Palestinian Territories that serves as the subject of this engrossing, provocative work.
Weizman, an architect and director of the Center for Research Architecture at Goldsmith’s College, focuses on the June 1967 War and Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank and Gaza. The work, as painstakingly layered as the geographical entity he attempts to deconstruct, explores the myriad ways in which the Israelis have transformed “the fabled land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River into a three-dimensional space” — a hollow land, as it were, via barriers, tunnels, walls, overpasses, and aerial bombardments.
Beginning at Jerusalem — the location, according to Weizman, of the “first significant urban transformation of the Occupied Territories” — Hollow Land describes how archeology, architecture, and city planning were used to consolidate and legitimize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem. The culprits were mostly military men and government officials such as Sharon, but also well-meaning “liberal men of peace,” including, in one instance, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who participated in a 1968 conference to “unite” Jerusalem. Through fascinating, if sometimes recondite, asides, we learn how the transformation of Jerusalem from divided to united city was achieved not only through well-documented policies of expulsion and land-confiscation, but also — primarily — through lesser known rules and regulations devised and implemented (or, as Weizman would say, inflicted upon Jerusalem’s Palestinian population) by the civilian officers, city planners, and architects of the municipal government.
From Jerusalem, Hollow Land proceeds outward and upward to the hilltops of the Occupied Territories on which the earliest settlements were built; it then dives deep underground where the battle for precious water resources is fought and where archeological excavations are conducted to further cement and legitimize Israel’s hold on the territories. It resurfaces to examine the latest mechanisms of control — the checkpoints and the wall — and how these earthbound obstructions are circumvented by Palestinian militants (via under- ground tunnels) and Israeli soldiers alike. These chapters form the core of the book and are the best developed; they’ve all appeared in slightly different form elsewhere, as parts of studies published by the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem and, more famously, as chapters in the catalogue Weizman coedited with Rafi Segal to accompany the 2002 exhibition ‘A Civilian Occupation,’ an examination of the planning history of Zionism. (The project was commissioned, and subsequently banned, by the Israeli Association of Architects.)
The book’s hitherto-unpublished sections are the most remarkable, but also less robust. In what is perhaps the oddest but most compelling chapter, we’re treated to a lengthy explanation of how postmodern avant-garde theories on urbanism and architecture have influenced the way certain elite Israeli army practitioners regard, use, and move through space. In Weizman’s telling, the direct manifestation of this influence is the new counterinsurgency technique of “walking through walls”—through the walls of civilian homes — in crowded Palestinian urban areas, bringing the battle against Palestinian militants into the homes and private spaces of all Palestinians.
The final chapter of Hollow Land takes us up to the last, and highest, dimension in this multilayered space — the air, yet another theater of battle, a base for the Israeli policy of targeted assassinations of “wanted” Palestinian militants via aerial bombardment, which, like the “walking through walls” tactic, are responsible for large-scale devastation and injury to Palestinian civilians.
Unlike most of the vast literature that exists on the subject of the West Bank and Gaza since 1967 (covering the political, legal, economic, social, and psychological aspects of the occupation), Weizman’s book is, by intention, narrow in scope. By focusing only on what he calls the “architecture of the occupation,” Weizman is able to select certain events and turning points from the last four decades of endlessly spiraling tragedy and confrontation to fit his theme of colonization via architecture, ignoring others entirely.
This reduction is, as stressed by Weizman in the introduction, a deliberate and deeply personal choice, for he aims, in writing this book, to focus attention on (among other things) the culpability and complicity of his own profession. And yet it may make the book appear, to the unconvinced or uninitiated reader, uncomfortably narrow and, ironically, for a work obsessed with dimensions and space, even one-dimensional. The criminals in Hollow Land are all, by Weizman’s dispensation, architects of some sort; the tools chosen for the perpetration of their crimes are all architectural; and the criminals are all from one side. This may strike some readers as unfair, and, worse, untrue.
However, in a field much too crowded with general, often lazy, polemics, Weizman’s book is a refreshing exception: narrow where others are broad; dense instead of diffuse; learned and concrete rather than incoherent and uninformed. While it makes, at times, for tedious reading, there is virtue to this approach, and Hollow Land ought to be read, pencil in hand, by all those who wish to learn about the multiple dimensions of the Israeli occupation, even by those — particularly by those — who feel there is nothing left to learn.
I'Jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody
By Sinan Antoon
Translated from Arabic by Rebecca C. Johnson
City Lights Publishers, 2007
I’jaam is the story of Furat, a prisoner in an Iraq reminiscent of the Ba’athi era. As an apparent gesture of mercy after a brutal regimen of torture, his captors provide him with a pen and paper to record his memoirs. The novel opens years after Furat’s captivity, when his manuscript has been unearthed during a general inventory. A classified directive has been issued by the Ministry of Interior’s office in Baghdad: the text must be deciphered — for it’s been written in an Arabic script devoid of dots or diacritical marks.
The bulk of the book presents Furat’s prison diaries as transcribed and “dotted” by the officer charged with implementing the ministry’s decree. “I’jaam” refers to this act of dotting the Arabic alphabet, half of whose characters can form two or three letters that share the same skeletal shape. Traditionally, the difference among these letters was established through context; the dotting system was later devised to eliminate ambiguity from the language.
The first of Furat’s entries describes how he was summoned to the security complex where he was held, beaten, and tortured (and where he was eventually killed). His accounts then progressively dispose of any linear notion of time, shifting back and forth between his life before imprisonment and his life within its confines — between discoveries of adolescent love and the experience of being raped and abused, between the brutality of regime henchmen and the loving reproaches of a worried grandmother. He punctuates these episodes with a single line: “I woke up to find myself t(here).” This refrain serves as an intermission between each disorienting change of scene, as if fading in and out of consciousness, between sanity and incarceration.
This melee of memories creates an unsettled mood. Readers are led into an intensely personal realm, delving into a journal that records the gradual breakdown of its author. Prior to his incarceration, Furat would subvert language in his head. A verse from a political anthem about citizens getting tucked in at night by their leader is transformed to: “House by house/Our leader calls on us/ and fucks us into bed.” In prison, however, Furat is aware that his writing will likely be monitored; he obscures the content in a bid to protect himself. “What could happen?” he says. “They’ll think that I have gone mad. And even if they find the papers, they won’t be able to read them.”
The restoration of the dots yields a series of convenient and clever verbal slippages. The agent in charge of the “translation” process marks such passages throughout the book, with an asterisk and a speculative explanatory footnote:
“The Ministry of Rupture and Inflammation* (Culture and Information?)”; “Accompanying him was another of his feces* (species?)”; “National hemorrhage lecture* (heritage?)”; “The National Regress* (Congress?)”; etcetera.
Furat first speaks of the shedding of dots after having witnessed an absurd government drive for eye donations to support the country’s war efforts against Iran. Flipping through the pages of the newspaper, he finds only eyeless faces, and headlines that have lost all their dots. As if the conventions of language are unable to comprehend violence, the loss of eyes, of dots, and of meaning becomes inter-changeable. Furat’s psyche disintegrates.
Despite its gritty subject, though, the novel regularly slips into flowery, overwrought language, as the protagonist is an adept of classical Arabic, fussha. Given the premise of the book, however, this style has its limitations. Furat’s account of his humiliation at the hands of his rapist, for example, falls flat, evoking pat cinematic formulas for portraying sexual abuse in prisons. It’s when Antoon employs the physicality of words that he’s able to create the most powerful imagery. Furat transmits his abuse with much more immediacy, for example, when he speaks of state propaganda anthems: “They penetrate my ears and eyes,” he says, “and seep out of my anus, only to invade again through my mouth.”
Although Furat’s defiance begins with simple jabs at state rhetoric, the concrete poetic potential of the script itself becomes his only real option for fighting back. The realization that dots can be shed, that letters can be turned on their heads, flattened, stretched and curved into other letters, enables Furat to turn them into “legendary beings digging a tunnel to the outside.”
By fragmenting memory and language in this way, Furat’s journal becomes essentially unarchivable, untranslatable, inherently ambiguous and unstable. The transcribing officer’s conclusion that the journal is a series of “unrelated and illogical recollections of a pris- oner” underlines the shortcomings of traditional forms of history telling. In the end, Furat’s hysterical language makes for a beautiful- ly disjointed text, which, through its cracks, may harbor the smallest, yet most effective, forms of resistance.
By Joseph A Massad
University of Chicago Press, 2007
A statue of Abu Nuwas sits on the Tigris River in the center of American-occupied Baghdad. The renowned Abbasid poet authored 1,000 ghazal couplets that speak of erotic love for boys. In 1972 he was immortalized in bronze, wine glass in hand, and placed at the head of Abu Nuwas Street, famous for its bars. Shortly after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the nascent Islamist authorities renamed the street Safinat al-Najat, or Rescue Boat Street, a reference to a tale about the prophet Mohammed’s family.
The renaming of this historical thoroughfare captures the chief argument of Joseph A Massad’s Desiring Arabs. A professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, Massad argues that, from the end of the nineteenth century to the present, Arab intellectuals blindly adopted largely Western ideas about culture, civilization, and sex in their construction of Arab history.
Arabs, argues Massad, followed the Orientalist line and came to regard their own past as degenerate, decadent, and backwards. They cleansed their civilization by internalizing Western structures of desire. Just as Arab intellectuals came to purge Arab culture of Abu Nuwas’s pederastic poetry, so too did the new Iraqi rulers “save” Baghdad from his erotic legacy.
Over the course of some 400 pages, Massad summons a deep archive of scholarship on sexual desire, ranging from memoirs to criminology. He presents the internalization of essentialist Western understandings of Arab culture and civilization, its handicapped movement towards modernity in particular. In the colonial context, European ideas became hegemonic through the works of historians, novelists, playwrights, and psychoanalysts. One of the book’s central aims is to demonstrate that the archive on sexual desire written by Arabs has been and continues to be plagued by this Orientalist epistemology.
Not unlike Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards, which historicizes the emergence of binary gender categories in modern Iran, Massad stresses that Arab discourse, originally open to same-sex desire, came to institutionalize European heteronormativity and Victorian morality. The normalizing of sexual desire was a prerequisite to modernity. Thus, pederastic poetry, which flourished throughout the Ottoman period, vanished from the literary landscape by the late nineteenth century. Same-sex desire and promiscuity were dismissed — as degenerate, diseased, and aberrant — if not altogether erased from the collective memory.
Furthermore, a central preoccupation of Massad’s critique is his discussion of what he terms the “Gay International,” or the discourse, missions, and organizations that work to advance and universalize the cause of gay rights. He writes, “The very same discourse that calls for the ‘liberation’ of Arabs from dictators and ‘defends’ them against human rights violations is what allows both imperial ventures and human rights activism.”
And thus, argues Massad, interventions from American, European, and Arab elites that call for the liberation of oppressed homosexuals may run the risk of superimposing Western conceptions of gayness or straightness onto largely nonpoliticized sexual practices. This project, he continues, has triggered a backlash by Islamists to repress the expression of a purportedly heathenous, decidedly Western set of sexual identities. (The irony is that both the Islamist and the Gay International situate sex as a marker of civilizational worth). One need only consider the often hysterical campaigns orchestrated by various international human rights groups over crackdowns on homosexuality in Egypt and Iran to understand Massad’s conception of this potentially disastrous instinct to “save” homosexuals from the depths of the unmodern.
Still, noticeably absent from Massad’s study is any examination of desire in oral culture. Somewhat addressing this void, Massad posits that colonialism terminated the existing Arab intelligentsia by introducing the printing press and the book “as the measure of civilized modernity” in place of the manuscript. After the establishment of the printing press in 1821, he writes, “a new book-read- ing public would soon emerge,” and manuscripts and media of the epoch before the rift of 1821 were considered worthless.
Here, a “new” intellectual sphere replaced the old one, which Massad mistakenly leaves for dead. He does not, for example, consider the possibility that sexual desires contained in pre 1821 culture may have developed through alternate forms contemporaneous with print media — as the case of ‘Awadallah ‘Abd al-Jalil ‘Ali demonstrates. A prominent (and illiterate) epic singer in twentieth century Egypt, he came from a long line of oral poets. Anthropologist Susan Slyomovics has written of a principle poem of his repertoire, “The Tale of Anas al-Wujud,” which featured nonaligned same-sex desire between a king and the hero Anas. And so contrary to Massad’s claim, the sexual epistemologies of pre-1821 culture did survive in some corners.
Ironically enough, Massad assumes that the fabric of Arab intellectual history must be restricted to print media — in accordance with Western notions of intellectual history. He criticizes Arab thinkers for failing to question European epistemology, but he fails to question his own notion of what may constitute the ar- chive of intellectual history.
Still, Massad offers a tightly argued and well-researched point of entry for thinking about representations of sexual desire in the Arab world, past and present. His book is one of the first to historicize the shifting role of sex in modern and contemporary discourse by Arabs. In unveiling the hegemony of Orientalism in the sexual realm, Massad issues an urgent call for Arab intellectuals to rethink the very terms of their debate. An Arabic translation should be published immediately. Along with the English version, it promises to incite a fruitful dialogue on sex, neocolonialism, and Islamism, which, in the wake of the horror of Abu Ghraib and the on-going imperialist project in Iraq, could not be more timely.
I Will Draw A Star on Vienna’s Forehead
By Sahar Mandour
La CD-thèque Publications, 2007
Sahar Mandour’s I Will Draw a Star on Vienna’s Forehead emerges from the politically charged backdrop of a Lebanon entangled in a regional tug of war. This starkly apolitical first novella charts the life of the titular Vienna, taking us all the way from her first yowl to her dying dirge in the span of thirty-six pages.
Born in an unnamed country, into an unnamed family, Vienna narrates her triumphs (a first kiss stolen while tutoring a boy) and tribulations (he turns out to be gay) as she careens through life, trying and discarding personas like outfits. She is an angsty teenager, a revolutionary activist, a failing philosophy major, a dissatisfied housewife, a promiscuous widow, a tacky talk-show host, a born-again college student, a suicidal depressive, a veiled homemaker, a fed-up emigrant, and then a fed-up returnee. Vienna is a flâneuse, a middle-class tourist in her own life, sightseeing in the strange realm that is womanhood in the Arab world.
It is the protagonist’s often hilarious running commentary (the book is narrated in the first person, except when Vienna emigrates to Paris) that makes the story most compelling. She explodes into melodrama the moment she is born, demanding from the doctor who just delivered her a magnum of champagne in lieu of the obligatory slap on the bum. Years later she organizes a protest to take the case of her first lover-who-turned-out-gay to the United Nations, in hopes of starting an NGO to relieve the anguish of all spurned women. Mandour’s writing, which would seem to belie her formal background as a journalist, uses an irreverent stream of consciousness to circumvent the florid classicism of most Arabic prose, keeping events moving at a brisk clip, transforming Vienna’s many makeovers into a hedonistic jailbreak from boredom and restriction.
At a time when the Arab female provokes fascination both within and without the region, books like Rajaa’ Saneh’s pandering tell-all memoir Banat Al Riyadh have redressed the old clichés in gossip column vogue and pushed them into the limelight. (Saneh’s book, a fetishistic chronicle of four women and their sexual exploits in traditional Saudi Arabia, has met predictably wide critical acclaim in the West as a “brave” work.) Superficially comparable in its subject matter, Mandour’s book is in fact a subtle swipe at an entire genre. She unfolds her main character into the various stereotypical expressions of womanhood only to collapse them, one after the other, into a pile of cardboard cutouts. It is as if Mandour herself is trying on different personas, then discarding them, until none remain but the stranger in a strange land. Virginia Woolf had to kill the Angel in the House in order to be free to write; perhaps only in death can Vienna have an autonomous life.
But it would be reductive to relegate this character to the annals of feminism, just as it would be naive to pretend that her story has little to do with the writer’s Lebanese homeland. Consumed by sectarian strife and teetering on the verge of civil war, it is thus no surprise that Mandour’s heroine is distinguished by her blasé attitude toward it all, flitting indifferently from one experience to another, much like the famed bar hoppers of Beirut during war-time, in search of instant gratification until she finally greets death with an oxygen mask and a song:
“Vienna has a garden in Eden, and a melody in the air with a ring. If heard by the birds, it makes them all cry and sing.”
Najmieh Batmanglij, celebrated chef, teacher, and author of the definitive Persian cookbooks New Food of Life, Silk Road Cooking, and more hosted us recently in her lovely home. Over the course of one day, we were graciously trained in the secret art of preparing a delectable winter meal—complete with the quintessential Persian stunner: saffron rice with a golden crust. We share Najmieh’s introductory lessons in this winter issue of Bidoun (what could be more glorious than a perfect quest?) and invite you to familiarize yourself with the delicacies of one of the oldest, most delicious of world cuisines.
“To leave is romantic, to return is baroque.”
There are only so many ways to riff on the image of the World Trade Center. That was true before September 11; it remains true today. You can do the math: add a tower, remove one, take both away. A lot of people fantasized about getting rid of them, long before Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or whoever dreamt of using airliners to do the job, though the actual circumstances of the WTC’s destruction were not quite what they had in mind. Party Music, an album by the Marxist hip hop group The Coup, had to be postponed in late September 2001 because the original cover art featured group members, DJ Pam the Funkstress and Raymond “Boots” Riley, a fake detonator in hand, the Twin Towers exploding overhead. They had worse timing than most, but they were far from alone.
In death as in life, the creation of Japanese-American architect Minoru Yamasaki has served as a twin engine of fantasy.
The towers at The World Trade Center were the foremost architectural statement of surplus glory. Despite their slightly differential height — the North Tower required a few extra feet for a cafeteria on the 43rd floor — they were clearly the same building, twice. Not only the tallest building in the world (an ambition hatched not by the architect but by the Port Authority public relations office), it was the tallest building and its uncanny echo — its shadow or doppelganger. Or rather, its clone. In his 1983 essay “Simulations” Jean Baudrillard rhapsodized that the second tower canceled out the first, signifying “the end of all original reference….For the sign to be pure, it has to duplicate itself: it is the duplication of the sign that destroys its meaning.”
This was not untrue; the second tower by its nature gave the lie to the first. But what was the lie? What was lost in the duplication? For Baudrillard each single building is an “effigy of the capitalist system,” a “pyramidal jungle, all of the buildings attacking each other”; the Twin Towers spelled “the end of all competition” as well as “the end of verticality.” It also spelled the end of an era in architecture: the Towers were “blind. … All referential of habitat, of the façade as face, of interior and exterior, that you still find in the Chase Manhattan or in the boldest mirror-buildings of the ‘60s, is erased.”
As was his wont, Baudrillard cast his analyses in extremis. History has just ended. Everything has always just ended. But he was, again, not wrong. Seen from a certain angle, against the sun, the Towers lost their specificity, their gothic flourishes; they became mute, undifferentiated. They did not come after the end, but before the beginning.
The monolith derives its power from its singularity: it is “carved from one stone,” and was associated with transformation long before Kubrick’s 2001 — that is, before 1969. And not in a good way. The first appearance of the monolith in the film betokens the discovery of technology, the leap from ape to human: to Homo Sapiens as Homo Faber, “man the maker,” and also, at the same moment, Homo Necans, “man the killer.” That the first tool should become the first murder weapon would not surprise an alchemist.
The destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 finalized the concatenation of the Twin Towers, forever fused into a singular entity. An accident of history with the force of finality; it is as though one thing is gone, not two. It is almost impossible to imagine it otherwise, to conceive of what New York would look like, say, if United Airlines Flight 175 had missed its target. If the monument to the WTC were a single tower, forever mourning its absent twin. Donald Trump’s quixotic campaign to rebuild an exact duplicate of the Twin Towers may make more sense than the decision to build them in the first place. There was always something volatile about this doubling, the twoness of the twins. Sometimes, as Mahogany says, “One Plus One Equals Three Or More.” When the Word became Flesh, when the Father begat the Son, He also begat the Holy Spirit, a third force, invisible but also indivisible: triune, three-in-one. Bidoun’s Trinity Towers, now open for business.
Or, it’s just a joke.
We lifted the idea from The 80s: A Look Back at the Tumultuous Decade, one of the best-selling books of 1979 and the kind of book you can find for a dollar on the streets of New York today. The 80s was a piss-take on “popular histories,” the brainchild of veterans of Sesame Street, Monty Python, and National Lampoon. It chronicled a variety of outlandish prospects, from the acquisition of the United Kingdom by the Disney Corporation in 1981 to the invasion of Europe by Arabs in 1989. Midway through the decade, on p. 160, the iconic Twin Towers of the World Trade Center acquired a sibling: a third tower, standing on the twins’ shoulders, like cheerleaders, the better to accommodate the booming business in commodity futures.
Not a very good joke, really. But the image also raised a perfectly fine question: why not three towers? Yamasaki faced just such a question at the press conference in 1972, at the completion of the WTC. Why two 110-story buildings? he was asked. Why not a single tower 220 stories tall? “I didn’t want to lose the human scale,” the architect said.
That was a joke, too. The International Style never seemed so stark or brooding as in the rectilinear tablets of the WTC. Lewis Mumford decried its “purposeless gigantism and technological exhibitionism.” Occupants complained about the narrow vertical windows, gothic accoutrements of Yamasaki’s imagination. When Philippe Petit made his famous tightrope walk in 1974, it signified precisely the stark contrast between the towers — not merely buildings, but monuments — and the human.
At the end of the original 1933 version of King Kong — an allegory of miscegenation, Hitler’s favorite film — the transplanted gorilla from Skull Island clung precariously to the single spire of the Empire State Building, the tallest in the world, completed only two years earlier. In the 1976 remake, the doomed ape found a more comfortable purchase by standing astride the Twin Towers. There was something right about it; the scale was correct. The advertising campaign for the remake was the first to feature the towers as a design element: an outsized Kong, bristling with rage, crushing an incoming plane in his tense black fist.
As it happened, the iconic part of the poster was the plane, not the ape.
Additional prose and concepts by Hakim Bey, Nelson Bart Harst, Benjamin Tiven, Jack Vazquez
“Mrs Li Wol Sun is the highest Merited Artist in embroidery, and she has more than thirty years of work at the Embroidery Institute. She is Artist Number Two grade, which is the best rank. There is a Number One rank, but no one has ever reached it because of the eyestrain — one of the dangers of doing too much stitching.”
— Charlie Crane, Welcome to Pyongyang
In 1863, the Baha’u’llah, née Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri, founded the Baha’i faith. The name derives from bahá, the Arabic word for “splendor” or “glory.” The Baha’u’llah preached the fundamental unity of God, humanity, and religion, maintaining that he himself, as “Glory of God,” was the fulfillment of at least six great eschatologies. He was the first coming of the Jewish Messiah and the second coming of the Christian Jesus; the revelation of the occulted Third Imam, Imam Husayn; as well as the occulted Isa, the Muslim Jesus. And closer to home — Bahaism was born in Persia —he was the return of Shah Bahram Varjavand, the Zoroastrian messiah, as well as the Manifestation prophesied by his teacher, Mirza Ali Muhammad, the founder in 1844 of another worldly religion, Babism.
One of the more dramatic events of the War of 1812 transpired in 1814, on the moist evening of August 24, when British forces took the American capital of Washington, DC, and proceeded to burn down the major landmarks, including the Treasury Building and the White House.
One of the last to leave the White House was Dolley Madison, wife of President James Madison, who stayed behind to collect sundry treasures, including a full-length portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, the artist whose Unfinished Portrait is the basis of the image on the one-dollar bill.
The British soldiers who took the White House discovered a banquet set for forty in the main dining hall. They proceeded to sit down to dinner and take souvenirs from the building before setting it on fire.
The flames were said to be visible from Baltimore, thirty-odd miles away.
On August 25, 1814, a hurricane struck the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. A brutal tornado tore through Washington, ransacking the British forces and putting out the remaining fires. The British were forced to retreat to their warships, and the occupation of Washington, begun the day before, was over.
CHRISM, CHRISMARIUM, CHRIST
Literally “an anointing” in Greek, chrism is consecrated oil, usually from the fruit of the olive tree, used to represent the presence of the Holy Spirit among Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholics. Sometimes the chrism is stored in a special globe-shaped silver jar called a chrismarium. The words derive from the Greek word chrio, meaning “to smear with oil or grease,” as does the word Christ, “anointed one.”
In 301 AD, Armenia became the first Christian nation. In the wake of a series of wars against the Persian Empire, King Tirdat of Armenia became increasingly brutal in his persecution of the growing Christian movement. Saint Hripsime, a teenaged virgin who spurned his advances, was put to death, while Gregory, Tirdat’s first cousin and an influential Christian convert, spent fourteen years in a deep pit on the Ararat Plain.
One day King Tirdat, subject to violent lycanthropic urges, followed his sister’s counsel and released Gregory from the pit. Gregory, called the Illuminator, restored the monarch’s health and sanity, then baptized him. The following year Gregory became patriarch of the new Armenian Apostalic Church. Today Gregory’s head resides in Rome, his right hand at Echmiadzin in Armenia, and his left in Antelias, Lebanon.
In 1972, the women of Sipche, Nepal, poisoned all the men in their village on the theory that if they killed one hundred men, the hundredth would turn to gold and make them rich.
“There are circular phenomena of light in drops or bubbles of water and in ice crystals which by the refraction of light reveal in greater or less degree the spectral colors….the curious rings of light or color similar to the above, which often form themselves before the iris of the eye even in candlelight, [and] are more gorgeous on the mountain mist…If the beholder has the sun behind him; they surround his shadow as it is projected upon the clouds….Occasionally one even sees the planet Venus veiled by a disc of light. The phenomena of discs and broad rings are more usual in the sun and moon. The Babylonians studied them diligently…. The terminology of these phenomena is vague. The disc or circle around the sun can be correctly called ‘anthelia,’ and the ring around the moon ‘halo.’ A more usual name is ‘aureole,’ which in a restricted sense means an oval or elliptical ray of light like a medallion. If the brightness is merely a luminous glow without definitely forming a ring, circle, or ellipse, it is usually spoken of as a ‘glory.’ The types in nature in which rays or beams of light with or without color challenge attention, suggested the symbolical use of the nimbus to denote high dignity or power. It is thus that Divine characteristics and the loftiest types of humanity were denoted by the nimbus.”
—“Nimbus,” G. Gietmann, The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol XI, 1911.
HERO OF THE SOVIET UNION (A TYPICAL LUNCH, IN THE PRIVATE HOME, OF A)
Established by personal directive of Stalin in 1934, “Hero of the Soviet Union” was the highest distinction given by the USSR. Recipients of one commendation were given a medal and a complementary enrollment in the Order of Lenin. Recipients of two awards were entitled to a commemorative bronze bust of his or her likeness, as well as an inscription in the hero’s hometown. Three-time recipients — the highest possible number, by Stalin’s writ — were entitled to have their bust erected on a pedestal in Moscow near the Palace of Soviets, though the Palace was never built.
Marshall George Zhukov and General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev received four commendations each.
The first Heroes were the pilots who rescued the crew of the steamship Cheliuskin, which was crushed by Arctic ice fields in 1934.
The final recipient was a Soviet diver, Captain of the Third Rank Leonid Mikhailovich Solodkov, who received the award for the performance of a “special diving task” on December 24, 1991. The USSR dissolved itself by act of parliament two days later.
“Destroy us in daylight, as it is your pleasure to see us destroyed!” So pleads the giant Ajax, strongest of the Achaeans, in the seventeenth book of the Illiad. As his forces fell to the Trojan onslaught, Ajax addressed himself to Zeus, king of the gods and architect of the Trojan war. For a culture in which the afterlife was an infinite, murky gloom, death in the daylight, in plain view of your comrades, was among the greatest glories.
Alas, Zeus heard Ajax’s prayer, and the Achaeans prevailed. Ajax died later, after the war, gone mad with grief and envy after a quarrel with Odysseus. A killer of sheep, Ajax took his own life.
Glory in Homeric Greek is kleos: honor, fame, celebrity. It derives from the verb kleio, “to tell of, sing, or celebrate.” But it also related to klazdo, “to wail or cry out,” and klaio, “to wail, lament, or mourn.” When we speak of going out in a blaze of glory, we are speaking after Homer.
The use of honey as food and drink predates the development of agriculture. The Pharaohs of Upper Egypt made the Bee a royal symbol. The Egyptians kept bees for both their honey and their wax. Both were used in the embalming process.
Upon leaving Egypt, the Jews wandered for forty days and nights in search of a land of milk and honey. Ancient sources describe the bees of Palestine as particularly fierce.
According to a Talmudic source, King Herod of Jerusalem had his beloved wife Mariamne entombed in honey after she was tried and executed for her role in a royal intrigue.
The sixteenth century Chinese doctor and writer Li Shizhen, quoting another Chinese source, and noting that the priests in Burma were known to preserve their leaders in honey-filled coffins, said: “In Arabia there are men seventy to eighty years old who are willing to give their bodies to save others. The subject does not eat food, he only bathes and partakes of honey. After a month he only excretes honey (the urine and feces are entirely honey) and death follows. His fellow men place him in a stone coffin full of honey in which he macerates. The date is put upon the coffin giving the year and month. After a hundred years the seals are removed. A confection is formed which is used for the treatment of broken and wounded limbs. A small amount taken internally will immediately cure the complaint. It is scarce in Arabia where it is called mollified man.”
—quoted in Bernard E. Read, Chinese Materia Medica: (5) Animal Drugs, 1931.
“The presentation centers on an ostensive act, a palpable proof — proving nothing less than what the Creed itself puts at the center: God’s descent into manhood. And because grandmother Anne guarantee’s Christ’s human lineage, it is she who is tasked with the proving. Her gesture is remarkable not only for its intamacy, but for its integration in a close-knit symbolic system. Observe that while the Child’s lower body concedes its humanity, the arms reach for the Virgin.”
—Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, 1983
The monument at Mount Rushmore was completed between 1927 and 1941. The sculptor was Gutzon Borglum, a Danish-American artist from Idaho — the child of a plural Mormon marriage — who had studied in Paris and was heavily influenced by Auguste Rodin. Over a hundred of his statues populate the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York, and he was the first living artist to sell a sculpture to the Metropolitan Museum. Borglum was one of the organizers of the 1913 Armory Show in New York, though he resigned from the organizing committee before the opening, dismayed that the focus on modern art made his own highly figural work seem behind the times.
Between 1917 and 1925 Borglum was the lead designer for a monumental project at Stone Mountain, Georgia, inaugurated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy: a colossal high-relief sculpture of Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis on horseback, leading a contingent of Confederate troops. Borglum, a fervent patriot who worried that the great American monuments had been built by foreigners, was also an active member of the Ku Klux Klan.
During his work on the Confederate monument, Borglum developed a gigantic magic lantern — an ancestor of the slide projector — with which to trace his designs onto the side of the mountain.His Stone Mountain project was never completed.
Borglum himself chose the four American presidents for Rushmore — Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt — for their roles in defending and expanding the territory of the United States. The original design involved mammoth head-to-waist sculptures of the four men, but the money was not forthcoming, and Borglum died of a brain embolism in 1941. His son Lincoln Borglum completed the task and served as the first superintendent of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial…
“The Philadelphia Art Commission declined to accept Sylvester Stallone’s donation of an eight-and-a-half-foot statue of himself, offered on the condition that it stand at the top of the steps outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art.”
—Bad News: The Best of Esquire Magazine’s Dubious Achievements, 1984
Shortly after the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson as third president of the United States in 1801, the Pasha of Tripoli demanded $225,000 in tribute. It was not an unreasonable request; the US had been paying ransom to the Barbary states of North Africa since 1783, as much as one million dollars a year. But Jefferson had long opposed the practice, and soon American frigates were on their way to the Mediterranean. In the first naval encounter of the undeclared war — the first foreign engagement of the new United States — the USS Enterprise defeated the Tripoli on August 1, 1801.
The leadership of the Barbary states — Algiers, Morocco, Tunis, and Tripolitania —were ostensibly vassals of the Ottoman Turks, and their attacks on ships and cities throughout the Atlantic and Mediterranean were legendary (as were their enemies, including the Christian Knights of Malta, who opposed the Barbary pirates until 1798, when their order was betrayed by Napoleon). Thousands of Europeans were enslaved in corsair raids on the coasts, including many renegados, slaves who converted to Islam and embraced the freedom of life at sea, unaffiliated with a sovereign power.
The turning point in the war was the Battle of Derne, the first land battle of the American Marines, which would later be memorialized in the opening lines of the Marine Hymn: “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.” A peace treaty was signed in July of 1805, though the resumption of anti-American piracy a few years later would lead to a second, more decisive Barbary War in 1815.
Founder of the Mongol Empire, uniter of the Mongol people, and architect of the Pax Mongolia, Genghis Khan is survived by sixteen million male descendents.
681 AD: The Glory of Khan is a three-part, five-and-a-half hour film commemorating the defeat of the Byzantines and the founding of the medieval Bulgarian Empire by Asparukh Khan, on the occasion of Bulgaria’s 1300th anniversary. 681 AD was directed by Liudmil Staikov, a Bulgarian cineaste who specialized in historical dramas. His final film, Vreme na nasilie (1988), depicted heroic acts of Bulgarian resistance against the Ottoman jihad—a group of Janissaries led by the ruthless convert Karaibrahim.The cast of 681 AD: The Glory of Khan is said to have included fifty thousand extras. The name Asparukh is Persian and means “he who has shining horses.”
On April 12, 1961, Hero of the Soviet Union Yuri Gagarin became the first human to circle the globe from space. “I don’t see any god up here,” he is said to have said.
The Assembly Hall of Lviv Polytechnic National University in Lviv, Ukraine, features eleven images created in the 1880s by the famed Polish artist Jan Matejko. Small compositional sketches were enlarged into appropriately scaled oil paintings by masters of the Krakow Fine Arts School under Matejko’s supervision. The series allegorized the evolution of human thought and action under the rubric “Triumph of Progress.”
The eleventh painting, Suez Canal, represents the end of the line: “Human mind and will, scientific and technological progress, can alter the face of the planet. The picture expresses the idea of connecting Egypt and Asia by means of the Suez Canal. The beauty on the right personifies Asia; the one on the left is for Egypt. Their handshake symbolizes common interests, international contacts, union of races, and continents. The perfidious and malicious crocodile is driven by the Suez Canal [and] waves away into the desert. It means that the forces of good, reason, and creative work of man are gaining victory. And the sun is rising in the east as a sign of this victory.”
In 1987, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea began work on Ryugyong Hotel, a massive 105-story building with more than 3,000 rooms. It would be one of the only functional structures with more than 100 floors in the world, rivaling the Empire State Building and the former World Trade Center in New York and the Sears Tower in Chicago. The whole propaganda apparatus of the North Korean state heralded what was to become the world’s tallest hotel.
But the project was apparently abandoned at an advanced stage of completion sometime in 1992. Western funding sources had not materialized, even as famine began to threaten the populace. It was rumored that there were fundamental flaws in the building’s design; even the quality of the concrete was said to be compromised.
The regime became intensively secretive about the Ryugyong Hotel. Where publicity photos from the project’s heyday had been manipulated to show the building as completed and brightly lit (even during periods of electrical blackout), the abandoned building disappeared from official maps. Guides chaperoning guests through the DPRK professed ignorance as to the location of this obscure building, though the ruin, then as now, dominates the Pyongyang skyline. In 1994, construction began on the Burj Al Arab, a proposed hotel on an artificial island off the coast of Dubai. The engineering challenge of building required 234-meter-long piles of concrete to be sunk into the sand. The 180-meter atrium had to be refrigerated during construction to prevent the formation of rain clouds inside the structure. Completed in 1999, the Burj Al Arab Hotel was unambiguously the world’s tallest.
In 2001, however, architects from the Council On Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) were able to gauge for the first time the accurate height of the Ryugyong Hotel: 330 meters. The Burj Al Arab was only 321 meters. The ghostly hotel of Pyongyang, “the capital of willows,” was once again the tallest inhabitable space in the world.