Pātaka Art Museum
Now showing until May 15
After a while, motion sickness sets in. The horizon dips and tilts, the image tumbles and jumps, obstacles—pedestrians, military tanks, men with guns—are navigated around. Emily Jacir’s Crossing Surda (a record of going to and from work) documents a mundane task: a daily walk from Ramallah to Birzeit University (both in Palestine). What we see is a second attempt, filmed through a hole cut into the artist’s bag. The first attempt, shot by a camera held in Jacir’s hands, was confiscated by a member Israeli Defence Force. Under occupation, the mundane is complicated by detours, checkpoints, the closure of transit routes (seemingly at a whim), and protocols around what can and cannot be seen.
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Borders are vague and unstable. They are walls, blockades, or checkpoints; heavily policed areas of land where movement is restricted to a select few; lines that when crossed turn people from citizens of a particular place into something else. In Cross-border, on show at Pataka Art Museum until May 15, borders can mean very different things depending on where you look. They appear often as sites of transgression—spaces of reimagined political possibilities—than they do as national boundaries.
Since its initial staging at ZKM in Germany in 2013, Cross-border has spent three years travelling the globe. The original description of the exhibition suggests one impetus for the selection of this particular group of artists (all of whom are based in, or originally come from, the southern Mediterranean region) is the Arab Spring; which, according to the ZKM’s promotional material, Europe witnessed with “hope and skepticism.” It seems belated to speak of the Arab Spring as a contemporary event, but the potency of this arrangement of works is due to their ability to complicate questions of political agency, migration, and sovereignty.
Often, works’ gestures are simple. Amal Kenawy’s Silence of Sheep begins with a group of underpaid labourers, led by the artist, crawling through a busy Cairo suburb on their hands and knees. They stop traffic and interrupt the flow of pedestrians, most of whom seem bemused but not otherwise affected. The majority of the eight minute film, however, documents a confrontation between the artist and a group of angry men. It’s difficult to discern the source of their objection. Whether it’s compelled by misogyny, or differing opinions regarding what art is and should be and where it should take place, or whether the men are outraged at the degradation of the performers. As a gesture of solidarity with an exploited underclass, the performance seems kind of clumsy. Far more interesting is the way the performance’s political utility comes under scrutiny, the way the confrontation spills out, repeats itself. Kenawy is steadfast. She eloquently and repeatedly explains the intention of the piece to men who interrupt her. The implications of performance outlast the image. The footage stops suddenly, and the words “Fight No. 3, Continued till early morning (No more documents [were] collected)” appear against a black background before disappearing, leaving the video to begin again.
In Katia Kameli’s Untitled, a woman crawls out of a cardboard structure, hastily assembles a blank placard and begins marching. Slowly, she’s joined by other women, all marching silently, all holding blank placards. This video was produced in Algeria in 2011, following months of mass protests in Algeria and in neighbouring countries. Kameli’s marchers speak to the difficulty of ambivalence during times of political uprisings. Their silence, their blank placards, act less as a refusal of a position than a rejection of the simplicity of a position that could easily be transcribed upon a piece of card.
Borders mean something very specific now. Probably something different to what the word meant in 2013. We’re an island nation, and relatively isolated from political upheavals happening elsewhere, but we’re by no means immune from the discourses being produced by these upheavals. Conversations about borders seem to happen either at the level of humanitarianism, or around the ability of national economies to absorb an influx of people, or, quite often, they manifest themselves as unapologetic racism. These conversations never seem able to contain the conditions that led us to the present, nor the voices of those caught up in these conditions. The works in Cross-border refuse presupposition, and they refuse to address the political using the language of policy. These artists scrutinise the ordinary, they scrutinise what political agents look like, how political change comes to take place, the capacity of the image to transmit nuance or ambivalence. Things are complicated repeatedly, relentlessly, restlessly.