For Aristotle, the aim of art was ‘to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance’, a defence one may argue, of the much maligned movement in conceptual art. Criticism of conceptual art can be justified to an extent by the fact that so much of it fails to represent anything; the sensationalism of the work contained in Charles Saatchi’s early collections is all but dead now, waiting to be pickled in formaldehyde and sealed in a glass box. This recent exhibition at Modern Art Oxford, ‘Wherever I Am’, manages to both raise and answer questions about the function of the artist and about art as a ‘representation’ of humanity, going some way to restoring faith in conceptual art as a provocative and moving form of expression.
Yael Bartana’s video projection, ‘Trembling Time’, is an eerie film, depicting traffic passing under a flyover in Tel Aviv, periodically slowing to a halt at the sounding of a siren marking the commemoration of Soldier Memorial Day, a state sanctioned ritual in honour of Israel’s war dead. Her focus is on collective experience, her attention drawn to ritualised acts intended to strengthen national identity. ‘Profile’, another video installation, follows an anonymous female soldier repeatedly firing a rifle during target practice, a very different ritual which echoes the memorial for those who fell in battle. Killing and mourning form part of the same, ritualistic, painful cycle. The soldier’s anonymity is crucial for Israeli-born Yael; ‘For me, that soldier becomes a symbol that reflects my own feelings and emotions about the situation.’ Questions are fundamental to her work; ‘In what kind of place did I grow up? How long will this country continue the patterns of ignorance?’
Palestinian artist Emily Jacir has questions of her own. For her, art is a provocation, a force which can be used to ‘pollute’. Her piece ‘Sexy Semite’ hijacks the medium of the printed press to question Israel’s law of return policy. Emily ran personal ads in New York’s Village Voice seeking Israeli mates for displaced Palestinians, ‘so they could return home utilising Israel’s law of return.’ Its humour is one with a bitter aftertaste. Adverts for a ‘Dusky Eyed Beauty …no fatties’ sit uncomfortably next to the overtly political, ‘You stole the land, might as well steal the women. I’m ready to be conquered by your army.’ As well as questioning Israeli policy, Emily is questioning the role of art by challenging a crucial given; that of context. Her newspaper ads are in people’s houses, in their shops, on their subway trains. When we see the adverts framed alongside the speculative news articles which they provoked in the safe-haven of a gallery, the cycle is completed. The lines between humour and pathos, art and life, never appeared so indistinguishable.
Yet it is another of Emily’s pieces which is most striking, ‘Where We Come From’. She asked a number of Palestinians ‘If I could do something for you anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?’ The granting of the exiled Palestinians’ wishes is facilitated by her possession of an American passport allowing freedom of movement. The result is heartbreaking. Faced with the chance of one wish, the simple desires of the people are laid bare. Alongside photographs illustrating the fulfilment of their wishes, are transcripts of what was requested, in English and Arabic. ‘Go to my mother’s grave in Jerusalem on her birthday and put flowers and pray’ requested Munir, born in Jerusalem, now living in Bethlehem, unable to return. When Emily went to fulfil Munir’s wish she was perplexed by the crowds around a neighbouring grave. When they cleared she was able to read the name on the headstone: Oscar Schindler. Jihad’s request could not be more moving, ‘Visit my mother, hug and kiss her and tell her that these are from her son. Visit the sea at sunset and smell it for me and walk a little bit…enough. Am I greedy?’
The parallels between Emily and Yael’s work are clear enough, though it is important not to assume that the two artists are addressing two sides of the same coin. Whilst Emily’s work is filled with a longing for a return to normality, to home, Yael’s representations of supposed normality through tradition and repetition are equally unstable and alien. Less obvious is the relationship with the third artist exhibited alongside the Israeli and the Palestinian, Lee Miller. Lee remains unique in her field. Moving from high fashion photography she found herself on the frontlines in the Second World War covering allied progress for Vogue. The influence of Man Ray, for whom she modelled, leaves a clear surrealist impression on both aspects of her work. The blurring between the glamorous world of haute couture Paris and the terror of wartime Europe is most clearly illustrated in ‘Fire Masks, Hampstead, London 1941’ a surreal image of models wearing protective military equipment. It is through these juxtapositions that the links between her and the other two artists emerge. Lee, like Emily, plays with the audience’s reliance on a familiar context by juxtaposing suffering and beauty, and like Yael, betrays a fascination with individuals and communities caught up in events beyond their control.
For all three artists, art is itself a questioning force. It asks who we are, what we want and how we can achieve it. This exhibition forces us to think about both where art belongs in our society and where society belongs in our art. There might not be a right answer to either question.