'The Anxious: Five Artists Under the Pressure of War' at the Centre Pompidou

Sarah-Neel Smith

Reviews / 21.10.2008

In 1985 a Lebanese communist called Jamal Satti made three attempts to record a final video testimony, to be broadcast on television, before blowing himself up at the Israeli Army headquarters in Hasbayya. Fifteen years later, the uncut videos were adapted by the Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué to make the video Three Posters (2000), and subsequently a documentary, of the same title (2004), about the making of the initial video. This second documentary is currently on view in the Centre Pompidous exhibition 'The Anxious: Five Artists Under the Pressure of War' (13 February - 19 May 2008), which looks at Mroue, Yael Bartana, Omer Fast, Ahlam Shibli and Akram Zaatari, five Middle Eastern artists and their use of video and photography.

The anxiousness to which the exhibitions title refers is embodied in Mroué's obsessive reframing of Sattis video testimony a compulsive exercise epitomised in the documentary's fourth and final reframing, in which Mroué speaks of the presss reception of the 2000 Three Posters. He synthesises this content into a hyper-nuanced, didactic PowerPoint presentation on videos unique capacity to create a liminal space between life and death for Satti: the bombers declaration, 'I am a martyr', made on screen before his death, allows him to 'withdraw' from life while simultaneously deferring death by freezing him eternally in the present for the viewing audience. Mroué includes text slides in the documentary, highlighting some questions he and fellow artist Elias Khoury posed while making Three Posters: How does video relate to an action that has not yet happened? Should the artists allow the public to see the uncut videos? Would the artists profit from distributing an edited version of Sattis testimony? They ultimately decide that the use of the original testimonial in an artwork is 'not an ethical issue' but an 'accumulated series of questions' whose complicated layering is echoed, but also best revealed, by the equally accumulative, and accumulated, reframings of the original video's imagery.

Akram Zaatari, Saida June 6, 1982, 200206, digital composite image, 112 x 300cm. Courtesy the artist

As in Mroué's work, the concerns of the other artists in the show centre not on the destructiveness of war, but on how specific media shape our ability to comprehend it. Theirs is essentially an epistemological quandary: their 'anxiety' is not primarily caused by war, but by institutionalised methods of documentation, which masquerade as objective representations. As a way to evade or weaken the presuppositions of such documentary modes, 'The Anxious' artists and exhibition organisers propose subjectivity as a privileged stance. Curator Joanna Mytkowska asserts, in the accompanying material to the show, that 'as all generalisations and all attempts to build bridges between conflicting sides in the Middle East lack legitimacy, the personal viewpoint seems to be the best one'.

This statement raises a number of unanswered questions what is 'illegitimate' about trying to build bridges? Where did the museum find the 'legitimacy' to select these particular artists? but it effectively flags the key issue to the show, that of subjectivity, which is treated in roughly two different ways by the artists. The work of Mroué, Yael Bartana and Akram Zaatari largely follows the exhibitions guiding rubric, focusing on videos limited capacities to mediate, or represent, subjective experience; Omer Fast and Ahlam Shibli, meanwhile, go beyond this premise in seeking to undermine subjectivitys claims as an exceptional mode of memorialising.

Yael Bartana's Low Relief II (2004) is a row of adjoining video projections set above the exhibitions entry. Shaded entirely in grey tones, the uncanny moving sculptures resemble stone reliefs seen in public monuments. Yet Bartana's milling masses exercise no perceivable united will: ranks of civilian protestors move forward only to dissolve into chaos; youths raise flags but are knocked about in a crowd. By subverting a memorialising convention but shying away from producing any specific alternative, Bartana casts a doubtful eye on videos capacity to transmit, through representation, more nuanced subjective experiences or to live up to its oft-noted status as a conduit for direct expression.

Eschewing such images of revolution, Akram Zaatari's video is an exercise in quiet obfuscation. In Tabiaah Samitah (Still Life) (2008), two men work silently and industriously in semi-darkness. A young man sews; an older man smokes as he slowly cuts wires and makes bundles of cardboard, masking tape and plastic bags. The scene continues with hypnotic regularity. The accompanying text tells us that Zaatari's figures are repairing the older mans uniform from his time with the Lebanese resistance. But the videos continuing impassivity in the face of the nominally politicised scene does little to inform us of how these mens actions are politically significant to anyone but themselves. The films dimness and repetitive looped format is an impediment to our understanding, all the more sinister for its near inconspicuousness. In Zaatari's work, the medium imposes a penetrating deadening of significance upon the scene, whose details are perpetually just out of reach of our vision and full comprehension.

On the other hand, Fast and Shibli both undercut the assertion of subjectivity as a privileged heuristic device by addressing biographical histories in discordant tones. In The Valley (2007), Shibli, a Palestinian artist, uses photojournalistic images and a fact-orientated text to recount the expropriation of lands surrounding her family's village following Israel's establishment in 1948. The text reads like a history lesson, chronologically tracing the legal and documentary actions taken by local villagers from 1950 to 1957 in response to this event. But its seemingly objective stance which slowly wins us over to the villagers side is called into question by the incongruity of its final sentences, where we discover that there is an older history of internal dispute amongst its Palestinian residents regarding the naming and ownership of the village. This last-second skewing of what appeared to be the comprehensive facts casts doubt on the validity of the villagers' claims - and forces us to doubt the legitimacy of the personal investment we ourselves may have begun to feel.

Similarly, Fast's The Casting (2007) questions the assertion that subjective representation is somehow best suited to depictions of war. Memory is frighteningly unstable in this video, where an American soldier provides the voice-over for a series of tableaux vivants (actually live film shots, of actors simulating frozen movement). Shown in an alternating series, as in an interview or casting, the soldier relates two incidents: his accidental killing of an Iraqi civilian, and a date gone wrong.

Fast, as the interviewer, declares he's 'not looking for a political angle' but to show 'a way that experience becomes memory and stories', and the soldier obliges him by using the same congenial tone and justificatory rhetoric to narrate both events. As a result, we are repeatedly taken in by a series of 'trick' transition sentences laced throughout the voice-over. He narrates: 'We were outside, on a dark landing-strip.' The interviewer asks: 'Are you scared?' The soldier replies: 'Yes, its our first date.' As the sentences alternate at increasing speed, we lose the ability to assign them to separate scenarios, exacerbating the already unnerving discrepancy between the soldier's cavalier tone and the gravity of the events he narrates. Particularly disquieting given in tandem, Fast's translation of human loss into the subjective stuff of 'memories and stories' is jarring. His declaration of emotional engagement, at points apparently misapplied, draws attention in negative relief to the media's recourse to the safety net of neutral laden rhetoric and feigned political indifference.

Mroué, Zaatari, and Bartana's focus on video's limits justifies to an extent their avoidance of a deeper consideration of wartime events. However in Fast and Shibli's work, this persistent refusal to 'take a stand' carries larger implications. What began as doubt regarding the veracity of sanctioned representations becomes anxiety about the independence of ones own personal knowledge. These artists - and we ourselves - are paralysed in the face of concrete events, agents and motives. The question at the heart of Mroue's reframings or Bartana's counter-images changes. 'The Anxious' artists ask: if our comprehension and opinions of war are shaped by its increasingly fragmented mediation, have we lost the ability to take action?

- Sarah-Neel Smith