CHICAGO — If only this mountain between us could be ground to dust at the Art Institute of Chicago is the kind of refreshing and courageous exhibition rarely seen in major American museums, which are inclined to avoid sensitive topics that are yet to be filtered by the distance of history. Curated by Maite Borjabad López-Pastor, it features four installations by Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, a Palestinian artist duo making their first solo appearance at major US institution. These works, which combine digital prints, text, video, and sound, are conceived as an amalgamated experience that evokes the mental space of life under occupation in Palestine; at the same time they aim to challenge the colonial narratives that are crucial to sustaining the occupation.

Leading to the main exhibition space are two installations that serve as a threshold between the inside and outside experiences of occupation. Don’t read poetics in these lines (2010-21) is a series of prints based on Twitter exchanges. The work offers a sense of the the reactive quality of social media traffic surrounding the Arab revolutions, characterized by an oversimplified and spurious conversation that still governs the construction of widespread media narratives. Interwoven with this work, Once an artist, now just a tool (2021) is composed of text in vinyl lettering scattered across the wall. “The artists prompt the institution into conversation, by exposing the colonial violence and wrongful appropriation involved in museum practices,” the curator has explained. Both of these projects attest to the role of mediation in creating, erasing, or transforming the narratives that shape public opinion and how we act upon it. 

Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, Don’t read poetics in these lines (2010-21); Once an artist, now just a tool (2021), installation view at the Art Institute of Chicago, 2021 (courtesy the artists)

Within the galleries, two site-specific multi-channel video installations dominate the exhibition space: At those terrifying frontiers where the existence and disappearance of people fade into each other and Oh shining star testify (both 2019-21). These works layer materials that range from CCTV footage to digital avatars, text, deep soundscapes, and music, to convey two related instances of mourning and resilience in Palestinian life.

At those terrifying frontiers reflects on the idea of being identified as an “illegal” person, whose movement is constrained by the spatial, political, and military presence of a foreign state. Accompanying excerpts of Palestinian scholar Edward Said’s poem “After the Last Sky” are a number of human avatars created from footage of demonstrators of the March of Return, a series of ongoing protests held at the Gaza-Israel border urging the end of the military Israel Gaza blockade that obstructs Palestinians from returning to their homeland. The avatars’ missing facial features is represented as scars and glitches that allude to to the instability of the image of Palestinians, which is diluted or even erased when represented by international media. The digital characters appear intermittently against a collection of images from Palestine that alternate between the splendor of the landscape and the disquieting presence of the highly militarized borders and checkpoints installed by the state of Israel. A vivid soundscape of chanting and music reverberates from the video installation through the space. The sounds, together with the videos’ visuals, fragmented by the use of multiple panels, create an immersive effect.

Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, Oh shining star testify (2019), installation view at the Art Institute of Chicago, 2021 (courtesy the artists)
Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, At those terrifying frontiers where the existence and disappearance of people fade into each other (2019), installation view at the Art Institute of Chicago, 2021 (courtesy the artists)

Oh shining star testify follows the same format, projecting layered images onto panels and immersing visitors in atmospheric sound. The work is organized around CCTV footage of the killing of 14-year-old Yusuf Shawamreh by Israeli military forces on March 19, 2014, for crossing the annexation wall that cuts through his village to pick edible plants. This video is interspersed with images of Palestinians protesting the occupation, along with occasional appearances of excerpted phrases from popular songs — which have become part of many rituals of soft resistance that take place in the daily life of Palestine. As these different elements flicker on the screen, they bring to mind the cyclical processes of cultural and even physical erasure to which Palestinians are subject constantly, and which have transformed their lives into a daily exercise of survival.

The fractured recreations of At those terrifying frontiers, the pulsating images of Oh shining star testify, and the messages compiled in Don’t read poetics in these lines are reminders that media and surveillance accounts of armed conflict and occupation are always partial and perspectival, and often become placeholders for constructed narratives. Through what is at once fragmented and immersive, the artists and curator compel viewers to take part in and witness the psycho-social experience of the occupation, rather than trying to make sense of something unfathomable by means of metaphor or narrative. The exhibition plan reiterates the exterior/interior dynamic: if the social media posts can be seen almost from the outside, the exhibition space places the viewer inside the overwhelming sensorium of daily life in occupied Palestine.

Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, Oh shining star testify (2019), installation view at the Art Institute of Chicago, 2021 (courtesy the artists)
Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, Oh shining star testify (2019), installation view at the Art Institute of Chicago, 2021 (courtesy the artists)

While the issue of the occupation of Palestine is at the forefront of international public debate, its complexity is often obscured by a media portrayal of the conflict only as intense military and cultural antagonism. Instead, Abbas and Abou-Rahme assert that the lived reality of occupation involves a multiplicity of factors that are erased or overlooked by their controlled representations. The panels that fragment the projections remind us that we’re dealing with an intense spatial regime, and that politics take place through enabling or disabling the circulation, encounter, dispersal, and even existence of bodies in space. 

If only this mountain between us could be ground to dust is without a doubt a show that deserves more attention than the promotion provided by its host institution. This project thoughtfully addresses the cognitive dissonances between lived experience, its public debate, and accounts presented in mass and social media. It constitutes a commendable effort to place crucial debates at the institutions that have long avoided their urgency and importance.

Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme: If only this mountain between us could be ground to dust continues at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through Jaunary 3, 2022. the exhibition was curated by Maite Borjabad López-Pastor, Neville Bryan Associate Curator, Architecture and Design.

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David Ayala-Alfonso

David Ayala-Alfonso is a curator and artist working between Mexico City, London, and New York. He has carried out different curatorial residencies in France, Colombia, the United States, and Germany, and...