- Dor Guez born 1980
- Video, high definition, projection, colour, and sound (stereo)
- Duration: 20min
- Presented by Outset Contemporary Art Fund 2019
The Sick Man of Europe is an expansive video installation project by the Israeli artist Dor Guez that, at the time of writing, is still ongoing. Once complete, it will comprise five works. Made between 2015 and 2017, The Painter, The Architect and The Composer are the first three works in the project and are all in Tate’s collection (see Tate T15575, T15576 and T15577). The project’s title is derived from a nineteenth-century term used to describe The Ottoman Empire – the ‘sick man’ referring to perceived economic, political or cultural weakness. It has since been used to describe numerous other European powers. Each section of Guez’s project takes as its point of departure the account of a real-life individual whose artistic practice becomes interrupted by their conscription into military service. Guez uses the ‘sick man’ as an analogy both for those individuals who are impinged upon and for the structures that enable different forms of injustice. Using the modernist technique of re-presenting archival material, Guez gives the past an active voice in an attempt to navigate the complex cultural trauma of war.
The first part of the project, The Painter 2015, is the story of an unnamed Jewish Tunisian painter whose conscription into the Yom Kippur War ended his nascent artistic practice. Shot in colour and lasting eighteen minutes, the film comprises archival images, including photographs of the painter’s military service and his paintings, which scroll across the screen in a form reminiscent of many biographic documentaries. Often the image is embellished with simple graphic animation that accentuates a pattern or design. Over the images, Guez’s voice recounts, through letters and dairy entries, the life of the ‘painter’. The theme of lost potential is reinforced by the narration in which Guez talks about aspirations and unfulfilled dreams. A brief prologue is followed by two shots of digital scanners: the first overlaid with the film’s title and the second showing one of the painter’s charcoal drawings. Each shot evokes a desire to capture and relocate the past. The fragility of the aged paper is juxtaposed with the seeming permanence of the digital image. Moreover, Guez suggests that the metaphorical ‘Sick Man of Europe’ is indelibly tied to material history.
The second work in the series, The Architect 2015, is presented as a two-channel video dealing with the life of architecture student Kemal P., who, only two days after graduating, was recruited into the Turkish Army. Shot in colour and lasting fifteen minutes, the diptych is arranged with thirteen of Kemal’s photographs in a slideshow on the right-hand side. Guez imbues the still image with cinematic language: the pan, the wipe, the fade. These photographs, taken in 1939, depict the Turkish Republic’s Victory Day Parade. The left-hand image again explores how re-presenting images can prompt a re-evaluation of the past. Here we see the locations and their architectural plan, referenced in the photos and narration, which is recorded in the process of being sketched out. The two-channel video concludes as both screens synchronise, becoming a crimson, panoramic lithograph. The double image forms an ultra-wide frame that evokes a sweeping cinematic landscape.
The third section of the project, The Composer 2017, details the journey of Armenian composer Hagop and of Guez himself, as they venture to reclaim cultural identity. Hagop, whose family was forced to relocate to Jerusalem during the First World War, vows only to complete his musical works once he has visited Armenia. The video, which lasts ten minutes, is formed of a black-and-white photographic negative of the Armenian landscape shot from a moving car. Made abstract by the panning movement, this wave of chalk-like lines connects the compositional form of Armenian music to the natural form of the Armenian landscape. The narration by two well-known Armenian early twentieth-century composers, Komitas and Suni, is heard throughout the video. This audio is taken from an archival radio recording in which the composers reiterate the link between musical and aesthetic form. They go on to compare the act of composing music to a journey, which connects to Hagop’s own journey. Bookending the work are two scenes in which, from a top-down view, white-gloved hands arrange glass slides containing images of the Ottoman army during the First World War.
The Sick Man of Europe exemplified Guez’s practice to date. Of mixed Christian Palestinian and Tunisian Jewish origin himself, his work interrogates the complex relationship between politics and culture, looking specifically at art-making. Drawing on his own complex cultural identity, he engages with the Christian Palestinian community – whose histories from the early twentieth century he has documented as founder of The Christian Palestinian Archive – using history as a means to ask questions about how we define identity. His practice is situated between photography and the moving image, often drawing upon archival and found material to interrogate the lingering traces of trauma and injustice.
Dor Guez, Chelsea Haines and Kemal P., Dor Guez: The Sick Man of Europe: The Architect, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit 2015.
Achim Borchardt-Hume and Dor Guez, Dor Guez: The Sick Man of Europe: The Painter, exhibition catalogue, A.M. Qattan Foundation and Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 2015.
Helen Mackreath, ‘Interview with Dor Guez’, The White Review, November 2015, http://www.thewhitereview.org/feature/interview-with-dor-guez, accessed 15 July 2019.
Sarah Rose Sharp, ‘Understanding an Empire Through the Lives of Its Soldiers’, Hyperallergic, 29 December 2015, https://hyperallergic.com/264752/understanding-an-empire-through-the-lives-of-its-soldiers, accessed 15 July 2019.
Andrea Lissoni and George Watson
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