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Title: From/To
Author: Holger Liebs
Source: Frieze, 1999

 

 

Frieze, 1999

 

"From/To"
Witte de With, Rotterdam

 

We all know the pictures: Israeli soldiers at border crossings, checking Palestinian commuters or firing rubber bullets at Palestinian stone throwers, many of whom are adolescents or children. Since Intifada began in December 1987, roadblocks, burning tyres, cobble stones and firebombs are part of the daily pictorial arsenal of broadcast programmes, automatically informing our visual memory of the Middle East conflict.

For his exhibition about the history and identity of Palestine, American artist and curator Fareed Armaly, son of Palestinian and Lebanese parents, took an arbitrary stone as a symbolic point of departure. A mineral lump that fits into a fist is one of the smallest units in a landscape; it alludes to the ancient beginnings of architecture (a starting point for building an identity) or an ideal projectile.

Armaly replaced the coarse surface of the real stone with a digital model, an intricate weave of lines that suggests a weave of paths. This is the leitmotif of the show: the stone symbolising a map. On the golden-brown floor of the gallery, a net of white lines is drawn, creating a parallel to the web of the digital model. Signs and signposts - 'From Gaza', 'To Hebron' etc - are printed onto it.

Over the two floors of the gallery, Armaly has designed the exhibition according to the logic of a website, the only difference being that the hyperlinks are available in real space. He has collected a large number of visual and audio documents about the history of Palestine - from the 19th century, the British presence in the Middle East, to the time since 1948 when Israel declared its independence. Maps, diagrams, old postcards, documentary and fictional films, tape recordings, faxes and specially created webpages provide further information. The show is a goldmine for cultural historians - and certainly one of the first instances (if not the first) of such a comprehensive compilation of a dispossessed nation's memory.

Thus, the Diaspora moves to the centre. The map that organises the exhibition is a metaphor for power politics: historically, those who own the maps own the knowledge and territory. Armaly reflects on a statement made by sociologist Stuart Hall, who, commenting on the history of Diaspora suggested that 'routes' can represent and replace 'roots'. But it isn't only Palestinian documents that mark these routes: a film by the LumiËre brothers, La Palestina (1897) provides the first moving images of Palestine in the exhibition - we race along rail tracks down a rocky slope. It is shown alternately with Twfik Saleh's The Dupes (1972), one of the first Arab feature films to deal with Palestinian refugees, which ends with their death from suffocation.

Journey, movement, escape and death are central to many of the films in the show, which can be selected and watched on video. Apart from Armaly, nine other artists and institutions have taken part, including the Jordanian Women's Union, a group based in Amman committed to helping Palestinian women who live in refugee camps. In Shatila, a camp that became notorious following a massacre of refugees in 1982, director Mai Masri handed out cameras to two children, 11 and 12 years old, who documented their everyday life and that of some of the other 15,000 camp inhabitants (Children of Fire, 1990).

Israel's official representations often employ images of the nomad to legitimise its territorial claims. Several series of Israeli postcards on display show Palestinians in indeterminate desert scenes, replete with the characteristic signs of nomadism: camels, turbans and scimitars, suggesting that those who roam don't have and don't need, a home. The postcards are meant to represent a nation, but instead show happy women wearing military uniforms in front of sunsets: building identity through the army that guards the borders.

With its net of paths, showcases and displays and its handful of monitors flickering in the big space, Armaly's installation remains sparse, but never feels academically anaemic. The richness of 'From/To' is not up front: it lies in the variety of carefully chosen images and the underlying concept that, while avoiding kitschy victim rhetoric, links geography, cinema, cultural history and anthropology into a seething mixture that is effective enough to let daily news fodder appear in a different light.

Holger Liebs