What is overpowers what has been, and sends it there, onto a different path

Ala’ Younis

All knowledge that is about human society, and not about the natural world, is historical knowledge, and therefore rests upon judgment and interpretation. This is not to say that facts or data are nonexistent, but that facts get their importance from what is made of them in interpretation… for interpretations depend very much on who the interpreter is, who he or she is addressing, what his or her purpose is, at what historical moment the interpretation takes place.
Edward Said1

For both the artist and the viewer, art is often a space for reflecting on a state of being. Artists make a journey, moving back and forth across the border between reality and the imagination, attempting to create sites for interpretation along the way. They operate in a migratory state between belonging to a place and capturing it. The space of this show is shaped by the artists’ intellectual and emotional responses to their reality. People are small, silent and distant, spaces are vast, hegemonic and depopulated. The challenge here is how to showcase the diverse political and social conditions which drive the artists to critically consider their environment. Can an artwork be an act of defiance?

Ahlam Shibli’s series Goter 2002–3 interrogates the Israeli government’s ‘urbanisation’ of Palestinians of Bedouin descent. According to local people, the word ‘goter’ is derived from ‘go there’, a command British soldiers often shouted to Bedouins in the time of the mandate, between 1920 and 1948. By capturing unofficial villages alongside townships built by the Israeli administration, Shibli’s photographs document the relocation of people from their land and the enforcement of urban lifestyles by a dominant power. The paradox of ‘housing projects for Bedouins’ symbolizes the wider phenomenon of rerouting a whole population and erasing its history.

Ahlam Shibli’s images of buildings reflect different possible political strategies: adaptability versus adherence, stability versus resistance. Similar options are conjured by Ion Grigorescu’s documentation of everyday people swallowed by the massive Soviet buildings of Ceauşescu’s Romania. Grigorescu roamed the streets of Bucharest with his Super 8 camera, recording the movement between and around these architectural structures. His non-confrontational, covert method of recording can be read as both resistance and compliance to a regime he resents. The system’s failure to fulfil its promises makes the artist creatively reliant on the conditions his work seeks to challenge.

In contrast to Ion Grigorescu’s attempts to interrogate the system at home, Cevdet Erek honours those who, voluntarily or not, have ‘left their homelands to create freely in the heroic struggle for art’. Is it possible to call an act of artistic creation heroic? Erek raises this question in his Shading Monument for the Artist 2009. The physical properties of the installation betray the subjective nature of this question: the work is composed of three-dimensional letters which cast changing shadows on adjacent walls, depending on the amount and direction of light that reaches them. The text is from monuments dedicated to the antifascist International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War. Using the fleeting shadows of appropriated monumental inscriptions to pay tribute to artists brings us back to the shifting essence of the very notion of the ‘struggle for art’.

The struggle for art in many cases is an attempt to ascertain other realities. For Hrair Sarkissian, the journey to Armenia, his father’s homeland, revealed a country that had existed only in his imagination. While Sarkissian was growing up in Damascus, Armenia was undergoing a series of economic setbacks under Soviet rule but by the time he travelled there, the country was slowly beginning to recover. His response is not one of nostalgia or disenchantment, but rather helplessness in the face of a complex, unforeseen reality. Faced with his own inability to grasp the full extent of his discontent, Sarkissian portrays an Armenia in disguise, hidden to him no matter how long he gazes at it.

The traces of a struggle can be discerned in the works of the artists on show, in their attempts to interrogate a tense present and interpret memories and myths of past glory. A utopian view of the future is out of reach, a dreamed of journey’s end, a refuge. There is room for all landscapes, architectures and people in this imagined space. Such places of comfort and solidarity are sought in the artists’ – and our own – interpretation.