I happened to spend a couple of months in Ramallah in 2016, accompanying my wife, who was curating the Qattan Foundation’s Yaya young artists of the year award. It was a good opportunity to do a piece for the FT on the cultural landscape in Ramallah and the Palestinian territories, which Qattan more or less happens to dominate. It’s about philanthropy and also about encouraging culture under adverse circumstances.
I finally went to see, Infidel, Tim Hetherington’s posthumous solo show at Foam Amsterdam and it left me in a heavy mood. Even accepting that the show offers only a small glimpse of his work as a photographer and cineast, its quite relentless focus on war is a chilling indication of the life he made for himself and how he chose to frame his own experience. It is not a choice I’d ever be comfortable with. I count myself lucky that besides covering the shooting and explosions I had an alternate existence reporting lighter fare such as the plastic surgery craze in Beirut or drunken gay parties in the Saudi desert or even the more staid political and business stories. In Diary, the very personal video account of his work, just a few minutes of syrupy footage are dedicated to what might count as the good things in life. “This is as good as it gets” a voice (Hetherington’s?) declaims over idyllic images of a blond girl playing in the green grass against the backdrop of a forest, “This is England, early autumn. Look at it”. And back to the war it is.
I noticed from the comments on my previous piece on Hetherington that many people wonder why war photographers do what they do, and keep doing it. I have no answer and maybe there is no single answer to that question. Questions of motivation tend to lead to circular arguments: I did it because I thought I had to/it would be good for me/it would be good for others/I wanted to see it/understand it etc. Yes, but why?
Which leads me to what I had intended to write about originally in this post, Hannah Arendt and the banality of evil. Last week, while I was sick with a stomach bug, feverish and weak, flitting in and out of semi-lucidity and the bathroom, I finished re-reading her account of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. Probably not the best way to ingest a treatise on the Holocaust, a painful exercise at the best of times, but I had been at it since I saw the eponymous Margaretha von Trotta movie in which Barbara Sukowa plays the Jewish German/American political thinker as she attends the Nazi’s war crimes trial and faces the reaction to her controversial book on it afterwards:
I thought the movie was OK, not great, and it addressed some interesting moral questions. Main among them was the price we may have to pay when we stick to our convictions and confront people with what we might regard as uncomfortable truths. But after re-reading Arendt, I think that the movie missed the point. It portrays Arendt as overwhelmingly driven by a a quest for logic and rationality, despite some heavy-handed attempts to balance that with a couple of rather mushy scenes from her private life supposedly meant to show her soft side. Reading Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt’s account and analysis of the trial, I was struck by how she is clearly struggling with her own feelings. It can be seen in the overly zealous attempt to create distance between herself and the Jewish participants in the trial, the prosecutor, the judges, the witnesses etc. and conversely her strained apparent attempt to be fair to Eichmann, by her small digressions and detours, and by the tone, which is didactic but strangely equivocal at times. It may be reading too much of her biography into her work but it’s hard to see how she could have written about it free of emotion; after all it dealt with genocide, the extermination of her own community, the perversion of her actual and philosophical birthplace and at a different level with her conflicted feelings toward the Jewish people and the state of Israel. In the context of her time it made sense for her to present the account as a strictly neutral, rational analysis of the proceedings. Nowadays we’d personalise such a story in a flash, appropriating it as our own if there’s even the slightest connection, to better stake a claim to it.
Arendt of course had good reason to present her account as unemotionally and rationally as possible; it was the continuation of an immense and important professional body of work on totalitarianism and violence. Yet, knowing that as a young woman her dissertation was on the subject of love in the thought of St Augustine, her later turn toward researching anti-semitism, totalitarianism and violence is very likely to have been motivated exactly by the kind of personal interest that she sought to ban from her Eichmann analysis. I’m not often inclined to advocate partisanship in reporting – Eichmann in Jerusalem was also a kind of reportage, for The New Yorker – but it’s probably preferable to an unsuccessful attempt to cover up one’s feelings toward a highly emotional subject, such as the Holocaust. Then again, we owe Arendt a huge debt for her insight that great crimes can be committed in a very humdrum way, that going along with injustice is often the easy and even seemingly logical option. Whatever the motivation behind her work, it is important and we are lucky to have it. Maybe we should look at the work of war photographers such as Tim Hetherington in the same way. Motivation is neither here nor there and is often unimportant compared to the outcome. On the other hand we often cannot help but let the writer’s/artist’s motivation affect our understanding of the work. It remains a conundrum.
“Artists do not per se have an accountability towards their audiences. If anything their accountability is to make interesting work”
Nat Muller, independent curator and critic with her share of experience in conflict areas and former conflict areas such as the Middle East and the Balkans, shines her light on Richard Mosse’s The Enclave, shown in the Irish pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale. She reacts to my doubts about a work that straddles the divide between art and photojournalism, and more directly to the criticism by Louise Williams, the Irish journalist with extensive experience in Congo. You can follow Nat and Louise on twitter: @nat_muller and @Loureports and Louise has a blog: travels with my microphone
To get a better idea of what I meant in my previous post, on war art at the Irish pavilion in Venice, here’s a video by Frieze, the art magazine.
At the Irish pavilion in Venice, named the enclave, the above picture is even a lot more, well, pink. Together with a series of cleverly shot videos, the stills form a psychedelically coloured documentation of fighters roaming the wilds of Congo. Northern Kivu, Goma and environs, etc. It is an intense work by Richard Mosse, shot on discontinued army stock that was meant to aid the detection of camouflage uniforms. Judge for yourself:
I actually, really, truly, wonder if you can spot the fighters any faster than if it were shot on regular Fuji-film or Kodak or whatever. But that may be due to Mosse’s idiosyncratic colouring. That part was not clear. Let me be clear about one thing: In my opinion this works as art. It’s a beautiful installation and that’s where the problem may reside: Does it use, utilise, instrumentalise, glamourise etc. war in any way? I’d say yes but I do wonder if it matters. Mosse raises my journalistic hackles immediately by having someone declare in the curatorial text (the genre should be banned) that his work proposes a new way of looking at photojournalism. Spare me! Journalism and photojournalism have been reinvented so many times now that it’s sucked drier than… And what does it mean anyway? But setting aside my immediate antipathy, I do recognise that the images are powerful and that is important in itself:
I have a couple of friends who hold strong opinions on the issues of war photography, art and Congo. I’ll try to get their reaction. Stay tuned…
Palestinian cardboard boxes taking over the garden of the Venice art school at the 55th Venice Biennale as part of Bashir Makhoul and Aissa Deebi’s Otherwise Occupied. Palestine is participating with a collateral event and not as a country. Deebi, whose film is showing inside the building said:
“The contemporary moment is a disaster but it’s exciting for creative practice”
Deebi’s work takes a deeper intellectual look at the conflict while Makhoul’s installations works on a more emotional level and is fun too: visitors can add to the jumble occupying the garden with a box of their own design. The work also reflects the idea that even the occupation is temporary, said Makhoul.
Iraq is very much preoccupied with its own recent past and with the effect that it is still having on the present. In May alone more than 1000 people were killed in renewed violence.
In Saddam is Here, Jamal Penjweny does the once unthinkable and places the image of the now executed dictator in a series of places where he would have been highly unlikely to appear. A reference possibly to the American hunt for Saddam. Or to the idea that Saddam is still very much present in Iraq, at least his violent spirit?
The rest of the pavilion is very much focused on daily life in Iraq and its hardships, a lot of materials re-purposed and ersatz rugs. Plus some very funny but very dark cartoons by Abdul Raheem Yassir.
To stay in the same neighbourhood, Iran’s cheap mullah’s are not funding a national pavilion but an Iranian curated the show Love me, Love me not, in which several Iranians participated. It’s not hard to see what’s on their mind:
But in case it is actually hard to see, this is oil streaming down a gold pyramid named ‘Mother of Nation’ by Iranian artist Mahmoud Bakhshi. I swear I saw a nuclear power sign glimmer through from the inside.
And then, purely for fun if you ask me, Farhad Moshiri’s magazine covers printed on mini rugs:
(Update: I overlooked the rugs with holes in, um, strategic places apparently referencing censorship. My bad.)
Getting back to the focus on the past, Lebanon’s Akram Zaatari deserves a prize for the greatest WTF? factor. Many a Lebanese did a double take upon walking into their country’s pavilion and hearing Hebrew. Relax, it was part of a documentary near the end of the very handsomely produced Letter to a Refusing Pilot. Here’s a screenshot of an explosion in the water, presumably off Sidon:
The idea harks back to Israel’s 1982 assault on Lebanon during which an Israeli pilot refused to target a school in Zaatari’s home town and dropped his bombs in the sea (another pilot did not have such qualms a bit later on). The pilot is oddly absent from most of the piece but Zaatari is not, he keeps reliving his and his country’s violent past.
Not much conflict or much of anything else really at the Egypt, UAE, and Kuwait pavilions. Syria’s was way too far to bother with (maybe isolated on purpose? containment?)(One more update: A, uhm, progressive British major newspaper source defined the Syrian pavilion as, and I paraphrase, Aaaaaaarggghhhh). And conflict was only conspicuous by its absence at the Bahrain effort. Instead we got a woman in Abaya with fish!
Finally, Saudi Arabian art was present as a collateral event organised by its Edge of Arabia promoters. There was conflict there, gangs, in its Takki Cinema of Arabia project. I could say something but will gracefully refrain.