richard hamilton at the serpentine two; a tale of two palestines

I want to write something simple, direct and therefore probably clumsy about what is going on when established art critics ignore and/or get snippy about a piece like Richard Hamilton‘s bold, brave and irreducible [this is the rub of course] work; Maps of Palestine.

Recognising the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and subsequent six decades of uniquely chronic entrenchment, overt war crimes slash crimes against humanity [oh those yada yada], ever more settlements and greater delusional sanctimony is forbidden in public discourse in Britain. Hence my ‘clumsiness’; you’ll need an open or well-informed mind to read on while I stumble through the ‘unsayable’.

It’s forbidden -or ‘unsayable’- partly because establishment Britain continues to offer cover as well as arms to the brave pre-pre-emptive killers of uniquely dispossessed, starved, besieged, picked off, randomly bombed, endlessly redisplaced and remassacred Palestinians, but also because it looked the other way for so long during a genocide much closer to home.

Maps of Palestine [2010] Richard Hamilton [w. thanks Eyal Weizman]

RH’s monumental maps are heart stopping; their allusions more shocking than anything that Koons and the Gang can muster. Art critical consensus mutters divertingly that it’s not really art is it? and if it is, it’s not really any good, is it? And, oh aren’t we a bit bored of this? They can’t say that about Unorthodox Rendition because it resonates visually with the equally ambiguous, uncannily similar, iconic image  of Jagger and Fraser, Swingeing London 67, which is secure in art history, but Maps is fair game, it’s easy…

Easy to ignore or disparage; bad politics and/or bad art. One of its actual characteristics is ‘simply’ political; the fact that it is a bald rendering of two maps of Palestine which make it evident that Palestinians have been cleansed from their homes and land and are now confined to tiny littering ‘camps’ [in Agamben’s sense, yes, but not exclusively here]. There is no disputing possible, no interpretation; this is simply the case. Which is why it’s not art, innit? That is; ideologically blinded by a perception that it’s ‘simply’ political, they can’t see anything else.

I want to say something about the way in which it is art in definitive ways and how its potent ambiguity as an object also makes it strikingly good, or anyway, lasting, art. It crystallises something unseen/unrecognised about the present which will resonate/fascinate in the future when ‘we’ will see better and with unerring perspective. In order to make that point carefully and probably clumsily I want to tell you another true story about Palestinian dispossession with covert establishment support.

The first time I actually met Mourid Barghouti, the great Palestinian poet and memoirist, was at a writer’s event in Norwich in 2005. These kinds of things; lots of writers from all over the place brought together for a ‘productive’ exchange, are often dire but this was not, I think. However, there was a round-table event that was profoundly degrading as well as terrifying in its way. A writer called AB Yehoshua was present, a man whose work is credibly literary, presumably the work of an agile albeit conservative mind. I don’t say this in the corruptingly ‘even-handed’ way that has so glossed Palestinian dispossession, but because I had positive expectations of him.

At one session, Mourid spoke very precisely about his own displacement and of place itself with a minimum of nomination, though of course when you tell the truth, even glancingly, it’s likely to hurt someone. He was calmly precise in mentioning some facts and asking open albeit suggestive questions. It was scrupulously exact and even respectfully polite; therefore very potent. For those who knew the background in depth it was clear that merely being allowed to stand there and say anything as a Palestinian was a mould-breaking, radical fact in itself.

[Actually, you can judge my memory  because Mourid’s paper Place as Time is online here and, in fact, pertains to what I’m trying to say here more broadly than I remembered]

When it came to Yehoshua, the tank-like figure that had barged and roared into the room morphed all-too easily into the Sharon-like Commander of US-supplied artillery. Spotting a Palestinian he opened fire with all he had to hand, no questions asked, perfect immunity assured and, however often this happens in actuality,  it was extremely shocking to witness. His blind rage, I mean in particular, and boy did he bluster and wow was it obvious that this is how it goes. He objected to something that all present knew to be the case; a recent example of Palestinian women being forced to give birth at illegal checkpoints erected on occupied territories held against International law [and more profound things] for decades.

The mere mention of this incontrovertible fact as an open question sent Yehoshua off into a reflex torrent of incoherent, self-defeating abuse in which he sought to say in essence; well if you weren’t intent on murdering lil’ ‘ol me I wouldn’t have to do it … if only you could grasp the relentless responsibility-taking that I do each and every day… but what would you know about that?

Somewhere in his rage he was complaining about the responsibility of the artist for what they say and/or do.  The obscenity of his violent outburst centred on his abuse of the most responsible of poets who had just given a very precise and elegant paper which exemplified the burden of artistic responsibility to perfection. Yehoshua meanwhile, abused his presence, his voices volume, the complicity of the British establishment, and raged on irresponsibly, not only refusing to take any responsibility for actual ongoing crimes, but abandoning any claim of artistic writerly responsibility in any and every conceivable way [and yes, I raise that to the highest, broadest of ethical categories].

His behaviour was obscene and cowardly; safe in the knowledge that he was squatting on a tank. It was terrifying because it revealed an entirely warped mindset, deeply entrenched in mass violence and practised impunity. At home his tank contains missiles. After missiles. After missiles. Here, his words were unleashed with the same intention; to kill the poet, the Palestinian, the other and any substantive sense of responsibility in art or elsewhere. What was shocking, indeed terrifying, was the knowledge that this small incident is played out endlessly, on a much greater scale, with blood and families and farmland and has been for more than six decades.

Almost more shocking was that the Chair made no sign of complaint, didn’t even notice anything unusual. It wasn’t that he felt awkward about how to rein in the verbal violence and lack of elemental human decency but that he was [I’m being kind] so immured to the established British discourse that he didn’t think there was anything even slightly odd about the outburst.

Art critics querying/ignoring Hamilton’s particular piece are not the Yehoshua in the story so much as the Chair; doing the work of casual complicity, blind to what is before them, ignorant of the artful potency of facts or the potency of facts used artfully.

The point about Hamilton’s piece of work is that it shows two separate realities -one potential and one actual- and makes no attempt to force meaning between them. No pointing, telling, explicating, merely the erection of two objects in space and time alongside each other; all relations open, a deep elliptical hole -more mysterious than a slathered over Anish Kapoor- of perfect ambiguity. As a work of art this is as close to the essence of what it is as you can get without it needing to be the most brilliant piece of art ever made or seen. To question this as art is to cancel art as a category.

Think of poetry and how it’s essence lies in Agamben’s reworked classicism; the enjambement of sound and meaning. Without the non identity of metre and sense text is not poetry at all; it only emerges as poetry in the very ellipsis formed [and is otherwise ‘mere’ prose] [See my Introduction to MB’s Midnight & Other Poems]. Similarly, it is the openness of the relationship between images [as well as viewer/s] here that makes it art.

One response to it is indeed simple, factual and unchallengeable; it is a map of ethnic cleansing yes, every bit as rigidly horrifying as aerial photographs of the infrastructure of death camps in the early mid-1940s [or that of settlements in the late 20th and early 21st century]. Infrastructure which, as here, war machines flew over without blinking, noticing, taking any responsibility for. ‘Camps’ which suit a purpose, a game ‘larger’ than the facts of chronic ethnic cleansing on the occupied ground.

A work of art, like a poem, that reminds me or exists only in this most elemental threshold zone is a blessing to receive. Before you tell me -or yourself- that this is not art or that it’s bad art, or that it’s ‘message’ is not very successfully conveyed, sit down and articulate to yourself what the relationship is between these two objects or images and then what the relationship is between them or that and you as a viewer. You might have to talk very precisely in general, and especially around how you distinguish the form that these two objects take from, say, two naked human figures stood in marble alongside each other. Why is that art? Why is that not bad art? Are you beginning to get it?

In fact this particular piece is not only a purified form of art, it is also fantastically humble and/or profoundly ethical art-making; an act undertaken for the other and otherness in its widest sense. I’m tempted to equate the refusing of it [the refusing to see or acknowledge it as art] with if not a crime but arguably an act against humanity.

I’m reminded of the sophistry that Emmanuel Levinas betrayed in an important and fascinating exchange in the immediate aftermath of the massacres at Sabra and Chatila, when a profound ethical response from a position of strength [the head of state responsible for those particular massacres said ‘No-one can teach us anything about morals’; an approach adhered to across the end of the century and beyond] might have helped [see; The Levinas Reader, ed. Sean Hand pp 289-297 Blackwell Oxford 1989]. If he misrepresented himself in the friendly context of the exchange, then it too was an ethical failure, surely?

Here is the contemporary face of ethical art making [with all its responsible innocence]. Today it is what it is, one day it will have extraordinary potency as a cultural object, a work of art. This image is only possible now; it is today writ large, in all its stark horror and misrecognition. Tomorrow it will seem inconceivable, impossible, absolutely mysterious. Tomorrow no-one will casually dismiss its status or its efficacy as art.

Tomorrow all those smugly complicit commentators will be eager defenders of the importance of memorialising the Nakba; the most committed to never again allowing humanity to descend to such depravity for so extended a period; the most insistent on the uniqueness of this horror, resistant of diluting comparisons to any other. But not until tomorrow.

Hamilton’s show contains a number of contemporary icons, stretching across the years and building potency in the present. With the new work, shockingly radical because so little else is, the show could almost just as well be called This is Tomorrow, but then that sounds strangely familiar…

06.09. from elias khoury a novel voice

Elias Khoury is a venerable Beiruti. His latest novel in English, Yalo, appeared in two separate translations in the same year; odd given the English-speaking world’s pitiful record in translating from Arabic. In June I reviewed the British Yalo for The Independent, and have posted the short text below. I also interviewed Khoury around publication of Gate of the Sun [Bab al-Shams] in 2005, a first which appeared in The Independent too [see Archipelago Books’ resourceful author pages]. These are notably good as well as important works of fiction which give rare voice to the actual terrors of our world and times; we should have all his work, especially his critical essays, in English.

The Independent

Yalo, by Elias Khoury

by Guy Mannes-Abbott

Elias Khoury’s 11th novel starts in the middle of a series of forced confessions, which spiral in unending variation until the eponymous Yalo concludes that “no one can write life”. Yalo is a thief and rapist, a security guard turned “hunter” in the forested hills above Beirut. Not only has he inverted his job, but he’s fallen in love with one of his victims. The novel begins as Shireen denounces Yalo before his interrogators, setting in motion his desperate attempts at “singing” his story.

Khoury has described how he starts each novel in the middle of the story. In the middle of his last novel, Gate of the Sun, he wrote that words and language have been circular from the first; “No matter how hard we try to break its circles, we find ourselves falling into new ones.” Yalo exemplifies this in ways that may appear dispiriting in a confessional novel but are mesmerising in their execution -as readers of Gate know.

Daniel Jalao/Habeel Abyad, aka Yalo, is a 30-year-old Assyrian and veteran of 10 years’ fighting in Lebanon’s civil war of the 1980s. As he circles back through his lives, Yalo revisits those years as a war-dog in that many-sided conflict. Finally sickening of it, he accompanies a friend to Paris after robbing the safe at their barracks, only to be left alone and begging at Montparnasse métro station. He’s rescued from destitution by a Lebanese arms dealer who needs a guard.

Yalo’s grandfather was a refugee from Ottoman massacres of Assyrians. He looms in a mystical guise throughout the novel as patriarch and priest of the Syriac Orthodox Christian Church in Beirut. When Yalo heads for Paris, his grandfather counsels that “emigration killed a man’s soul”. This is why he had “learned to read what had been erased”, he says. “We are a people whose story has been rubbed out.”

Yalo’s difficulty with words; his smattering of a “dead” Syriac tongue; his ambivalence towards Arabic and struggle to narrate, begin here. Khoury leads us towards his displacement brilliantly, but it’s only one of the big ideas to which he gives vivid life. Yalo the disaffected fugitive is part Everyman, part Lebanese Underground Man, and part the refugee as coming global citizen. Altogether he’s a brilliantly individuated character who, despite constantly shifting versions and ecstatic visions of himself, is as urgently affecting as the brutal torture techniques recreated here with scrupulous exactitude.

Yalo succeeds in capturing the equivocity of things while it also bristles and breaths with unmistakable authenticity. The key to Khoury’s writing is its rhythmic and arrhythmic repetitions; from scales that are formal and philosophical through events, memories and sentences to words themselves, which can constellate across whole pages. For every fracture and fragment there is a riffing repetition and return which accumulates force until this exasperatingly unsympathetic man steps right out of the book and you want to offer him a chair at your table.

Yalo is a highly compelling performance, presented in beautifully crafted, often lilting prose, a tribute to Khoury’s authorship in Arabic as well as to Humphrey Davies’ translation. This novel is about a corrupted individual in a corrupting time, but it speaks of and to us all.

MACLEHOSE PRESS, £17.99. ORDER FOR £16.19 (FREE P&P) FROM THE INDEPENDENT BOOKSHOP: 08430 600 030