“An intellectual must try to restore memory, restore some sense of the landscapes of destruction — what it’s like to stand on the edge of a village and just bomb into it.”
—Edward Said, from edited transcript of the 2001 PEN lecture
Emily Jacir’s recent show, intervals, at Alexander and Bonin, featured her installation ex libris (2010–12), a documentation of the 30,000 books looted from Palestinian homes, libraries, and institutions by Israeli authorities when the Palestinians were displaced en mass for the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Six thousand of these books are kept and catalogued under the designation “A.P.” (Abandoned Property) at the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem. Jacir, a Palestinian artist, photographed the books using her cell phone over a span of two years. The images of pages of the looted books, some with signatures, some with coffee ring stains, don’t say anything. They remain silent.
A scrap of paper with a blonde, haloed Jesus in sky-blue cloak, his stigmata-bearing hands pointing to his floating heart. A prayer card, or a sleeve ripped from inside a Bible, the image is meant for veneration. Here, it is adhered to a Xerox copy of a page from a book written in Arabic. It is not immediately clear whether the two go together.
Silenced, erased, censored — how then to represent this loss, this nothingness? One way would be with anger, with stark, strong imagery, slick videos or photographs that capture the evidence: razed homes, bombed community centers, a woman and child held at gunpoint. Instead, Jacir has chosen to fold into this nothingness, this endless, stretching shadow. Her works exists inside the negation, inside the emptiness. The rooms within which Jacir’s photographs are displayed are blank, empty, tabula rasa aside from the “shelves” of books, the displays of pages. There is no banner, no explanation, no photographs documenting the situation on the ground. Her photos document the echo of a people; they inhabit the emptiness of that echo.
In Pier Vittorio Aureli’s essay “Less is Enough: On Architecture and Asceticism,” he writes that Walter Benjamin “observed how furniture and interior design were driven not by necessity but by the inhabitant’s urge to leave their own traces, that is to make the living space familiar, to claim it as their own.” Aureli continues:
Here Benjamin introduces one of the most radical and subversive versions of asceticism in modernity, which consists in the act of transforming the most devastating aspects of modern experience, such as uprootedeness and precarity, into the emancipatory force of life in which worker’s increasing nomadism and uprootedness would be reflected by an interior that was easy to inhabit.
But what happens when one’s home is taken away, when one’s very things are taken or destroyed? In this case, in the work of Emily Jacir, she has taken this on. The uprootedness, the nomadism of the Palestinian, is, in Jacir’s fragments and ephemera, not unlike Benjamin’s interior ideal: emptied of décor, razed, down to the level of bare survival: enacting the precise experience of the Palestinian experience post-1948. They have been forced out of their homes, away from their land — most live now in the various refugee camps where they experience horrific conditions, waiting, in fact, for the return to their homeland.
The full list of refugee camps, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), is overwhelming: the Gaza Strip has 8 refugee camps and 1,221,110 registered refugees, the West Bank has 19 refugee camps and 741,409 registered refugees, Syria has 13 refugee camps and 499,189 registered refugees. There are ten refugee camps in Lebanon and 448,599 registered refugees. There are ten refugee camps in Jordan and 2,034,641 registered refugees. With so many Palestinians outside the walls of Palestine, they are silenced, drugged with the hope of someday.
Emily Jacir’s work is quiet. This is in sharp contrast to the violence associated with Palestine. We have been trained, as Americans, to see the Palestinian only as terrorist. That they have and continue to experience ethnic cleansing is not something Americans are privy to. We are told, instead, in the US news, that violence in the Middle East is due to Palestinian acts of violence, and not that they are under occupation, under the force of tanks, military gunships, and fighter jets. Edward Said explained this condition in a piece about Jacir published in Grand Street magazine in Fall 2003:
Palestine has become a worldwide metaphor for trouble, unrest, violence: for Palestinians, that combination of words evoking fact, memory, and aspiration and the images associated with them stands for citizenship or passport. In fact, this document simply establishes a person’s freedom to move from one place to another. Impersonal text and a photograph together can do the job, but the less fortunate refugee who is prohibited from movement remains paralyzed. Someone and something else have to stand in.
Jacir’s photographs of pages from looted texts represent the fragility of the situation: a scrap of paper with the image of Jesus represents a family, now gone — who knows where. And the paper, itself, is delicate; would not last were it not kept encased, protected in archive. The paper will not last, the trace, just as the people and their land wont last. With each year, their history becomes more and more hazy, shrouded, as it is, beneath a veil of intertwining stories. As each year passes, each family whose home was taken, loses their connection to their land. At the same time, each year Israel continues to take more land away from the West Bank. Jacir’s documentation of the scraps of paper is also a documentation of the plight of the Palestinians.
Furthermore, for the citizen whose citizenship has been revoked, whose home and state have been occupied, a mere slip of paper becomes their only form of identity. For Palestinians, who must wait for hours in an endless series of checkpoints merely to travel from one town to another, this one slip of paper becomes more than simply an identity, it becomes everything, it becomes their world. Should the scrap of paper become worn out from use, the letters or numbers becomes illegible; should the scrap of paper rip, become stained, or disintegrate, the person whose ID card is gone, is gone.
The situation is precarious, at best. And how is an artist to navigate when she is, herself, Palestinian, which is to say, how does Jacir continue to make work that instigates these very issues when she, herself, represents the very problem her work addresses?
The Palestinian narrative is contaminated and crusted over with years of dark interpretations. The story is reintroduced in the US news on television or in newsprint. The Palestinians are a forgotten people. Like the Native Americans of the US or the Armenians, there is a sense of there having been a people, of there having been a genocide, that there is blood on someone’s hands, but we turn away, waiting for the story to vanish. Dirt, dust, and ephemera is all that is left. And the documents, the delicate slips of paper, the trace of a people.
* * *
“Ramallah/New York,” a video piece by Jacir from 2004, is currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). When I arrived, the security guard, though attempting to be helpful, had no idea where the artwork was. I found the video around the corner from the cashier, in the entryway to the museum. Once there, I sat on the bench and watched awhile.
As a result of the lack of images from day to day life in the West Bank and Gaza, Americans tend to have a lack of understanding with regard to how Palestinians live. Jacir’s Ramallah/New York works to heal this erosion.
The brouhaha over Whitney Biennial curator Michelle Grabner’s fourth floor project, her “curriculum,” brought to the fore the ever-revolving question of what art is for. Is art intended for our escape from daily life or is it entertainment? Or is it, as Grabner suggests, “curriculum” based, a means for teaching the viewer? In regard to Jacir’s work, she is dealing with an audience that is, for the most part, ignorant regarding her subject matter. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the viewer — for political reasons, there is a lack of information and imagery shown in the US media. But for the sake of the viewer, it is imperative that they have a basic understanding of Jacir’s subject matter, the day-to-day life of the Palestinian, in Palestine and abroad. The difficulty becomes how to dispense this information without sacrificing art and without seeming didactic.
In Ramallah/New York, the effect is effortless. One sits or stands before a split screen. On the left and right side appear two similar scenes: a salon, a travel agency, a hookah bar, and a deli. There is no way to discern which scene is which. In other words, the scenes both from New York City and from Ramallah appear the same. I was not able to determine which city was which. Then, the question arises: if there is no discernible difference, if we are in fact the same, then why do we continue to remain silent?
Emily Jacir: Intervals ran March 1–April 5 at Alexander and Bonin (132 10th Ave, Chelsea Manhattan).
“Ramallah/New York” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd St, Midtown, Manhattan) through August 15.