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July 13, 2014 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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Home and Back Again

Towards the end of Anton Shammas’ The Retreat from Galilee, following the arrival and subsequent occupation of the Israeli army in a rural Galilean village in 1948, a brief reprieve is offered. By paying a ransom, the inhabitants convince the Israeli army to overturn a decree that would allow troops to clear the village. The story’s penultimate paragraph motions towards a conclusion that seems, initially, almost derivative:

“winter came as a complete surprise, as if it had waited for the war to pass over our village and for the peace and quiet to return to our homes… but the world did not return to its previous state, for the order of things was disturbed.”

This admission of irrevocable change is familiar in diasporic literatures. The location of the narrator is not revealed, but it is assumed he speaks from a certain distance, both spatially and temporally. The story’s project is one of reconstruction, told from a certain remove. For the narrator, it is not possible to tell the story of the 1948 Israeli invasion without first reaching back, to his father’s barber shop, to his grandmother’s birth, to the Ottoman Empire.

Nostalgia was defined in the late-17th century as a medical condition, an acute manifestation of homesickness. In the first two years of the American Civil War, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “there were reported 2588 cases of nostalgia, and 13 deaths from this cause”. Words dull with usage. When we speak now, the implied intensity is less severe, the potential for fatality absent. But nostalgia is still a kind of grief, an admission of absence.

Here we are… home, at last, on display at Toi Pōneke until 26 July, features work from two artists engaging with this loss. Negin Dastgheib and Jessica Hubbard toy with a longing for a specific time and place in a way that simultaneously invests in the reconstruction of a personal history, and acknowledges its limitations when applied to the project of feeling home.

Dastgheib’s parents moved to New Zealand from Iran in the 1980s, after the Iranian Revolution. Presented in this exhibition are a series of paintings based on family photographs. Figures embrace, or stand passively, featureless faces looking towards the viewer – in possession of an intimacy at once visible and intangible. Tonally, the works are both vivid and blown-out. There are echoes of Kirsty Porter’s family portraits in her thick, easy brushstrokes, her concealment of detail in favour of feeling, her undermining of the photograph’s claims to mimetic authenticity.

Nostalgia sustains itself through fictions. For children of diaspora, motherlands are preserved at the point of departure. The photograph works in the same way. The photograph, in its freezing of time, documents something that no longer exists, acting as a reference point, rendering the present – everything after the photo – as insufficient. Dastgheib’s rendering of longing is both profound and destabilising. Her work refuses any sepia-stained endorsement of a longing that treats the present only as a pale imitation of a better, happier time. Rather, the fissures in her representation, her concealment, her bold colouring, acknowledge the intangibility of the past, while allowing it a presence in the contemporary project of feeling at home.

Hubbard approaches reconstruction as a process of removal. Cut paper screens hang from the ceiling, dividing the gallery space. Where Dastgheib’s obfuscation occurs in her figuration, Hubbard’s appears in her form. The screens act as both architecture and receptor, onto which faint images of Japan are projected. Hubbard moved to Japan shortly after finishing her BA, knowing nothing of the language, and little of the place itself. Hubbard’s Japan seems less present than Dastgheib’s Iran. It may be the frailty of the screens: the bottoms curl up, positive space between cuts gets warped and folded. It may be that projections necessitate a kind of distance from the viewer, the possibility of close inspection denied by shadow. Dastgheib’s paintings possess a certain physicality absent from Hubbard’s work.

Dastgheib paints from relics, from stories told by older relatives. Nostalgia is rendered both a comfort and a danger. Abstraction, like memory, distorts the authority these relics proffer. Here, the past is rendered not as a qualitative judgement against the present, but as a means of grounding an identity, a means of moving forward. Hubbard trades in another, no less valid, dislocation – a lasting sense of fascination, the disorientation of being somewhere unfamiliar. She claws not at Japan itself, but at her impression of Japan at a particular time. For both artists, the past disturbs the present, it unsettles and unearths, but in acknowledging the impossibility of return, both artists motion towards a potential for reconciliation, a reality in which home is not an abstract space in an unreachable time, a home which allows the past a presence in the contemporary, but refuse to succumb to the temptation of nostalgia’s fictions.

Here we are… home at last, Toi Pōneke, until 26 July

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