One of the outstanding achievements of documenta 11 is the approach in regard of political competence of art—a political competence which should not be confused with art, and which is arranged around the conditions of art, not around those of politics. Although not all works succeed in demonstrating their political pretense convincingly also in terms of art. Nevertheless, due to the offensive political self-conception of this documenta, it might be hard in the future to fall back behind the current state of discussion.
One of the most convincing art-political Installations is the one by Fareed Armaly in collaboration with Rashid Masharawi—the project From/To, which in regard of its political explosiveness has been oddly neglected in the public so far—even though the work is hard to overlook, since it takes up almost half of the space of the Documentahalle.
In the Nineties, Fareed Armaly belonged to the pioneers of an artistic practice, which was commonly described by the term of identity politics. This term referred to an art practice, which related to the artist’s identity in regard of minority politics. Since then, these approaches have been quite discredited—either because their understanding of identity becomes too substantial, or because they do not transgress the notion of identity, instead they become completely absorbed in these notions. By employing a method which is associative as well as situation-related, Armaly to begin with did not even come close to these problems. To act and work in terms of identity politics meant in Armaly’s case, that a subjective exigency is declared a legitimate, possible starting point for an artistic work—seen in From/To, an installation first on view at Witte de With in Rotterdam, understood to be a “cartography of the contemporary topos: Palestine.” At the same time, he emphasizes his own perspective: as a son of Palestinian and Lebanese emigrees in the USA.
In which way is it possible to transport a disputed subject such as the Middle East Conflict contested borders, occupied territories, refugee camps—into a work of art? By way of an abstract as well as cooperative artistic method. From/To is a spatialization of a geopolitical situation, by using an external factor: a digitized stone. This stone represents artistic choice as well as it is charged art historically (earth art) and politically. Such stones block the roads at Israeli checkpoints, thus they are symbols of the politics of occupation. By transposing the digitized structure of the stone to a map and to border lines a system evolved, which becomes a pattern of white lines on the installation floor. These paths which one follows thus are as hypothetical as they are real. On the grey painted walls of these spatialised narrative maps are on display, which recount the history of these disputed borders. A film by Ramallah based filmmaker Rashid Masharawi is projected as well: it shows the traffic jams, the endless waiting at a checkpoint, where time seems to stand still and nothings moves any longer. As it is always with Armaly, the accompanying texts are brief and poignantly written, which distinguishes them from all forms of rampant info-aesthetics.
When visiting the installation the first time I became witness to outraged reactions, that this would be pro-palestinian propaganda. Although it is true there is no mention of Palestinian suicide bombers, this installation has nothing to do with any form of propaganda, already due to its conceptual aesthetics, and the soberness of the texts. In one of the rooms which shows films by Masharawi and a film program, the position of the speakers is clearly recognizable. It is evident that the goal of the work is to show a Palestinian perspective in all its multilayeredness. And at least as important is the artistic vocabulary, the specific form of spatial design. It is precisely this which constitutes one of the merits of this work: that it is based on a unique formal language as well as it mediates a political problem in an outstanding artistic way.
Isabelle Graw is a critic and publisher of Texte Zur Kunste and teaches art theory at Städelschule Frankfurt am Main/Germany.