LAWRENCE ABU HAMDAN’S BIRDWATCHING was supposed to kick off the opening days of the Sharjah Biennial 13 Off-Site Project in Ramallah.
It was not possible.
I had seen him deliver a version of this lecture-performance in March in Sharjah. Abu Hamdan wove a beautifully multilayered yet distressing narrative around the political implications of hearing and suggested that sonic forensics could help reconstruct otherwise incommunicable episodes of horror—from the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, to the Syrian military–administered Saydnaya Prison near Damascus—in the service of justice. As a Lebanese national cannot travel to Israeli-occupied territories, he was going to perform by phone, remotely controlling the laptop before us at the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center (KSCC).
Yet his voice kept breaking and the connection was lost several times. There was little point to finishing a performance on sound amid these interruptions. Curator Lara Khaldi, in charge of the SB13 Ramallah Off-Site Project, called the event off, saying, “Perhaps Lebanese artists have to be here physically.”
Indeed, a whole host of Lebanese artists and art professionals could not make it to Ramallah—including the curator of this edition of the Sharjah Biennial, Christine Tohmé. Rabih Mroué had taken the unprecedented step, for him, of training someone else—the Haifa-based poet Asmaa’ Azazieh—to present a miniretrospective of his lecture-performances, and a joint paper by Kristine Khouri and Rasha Salti was read by Hanan Toukan and Lara Khaldi. Substitution got the job done, but it also rendered the obligatory absences more flagrant, more menacing.
Long before my arrival I had felt, as well as understood, the connotations of underground artivism in the title “Shifting Ground.” Thanks to my Turkish passport, any mention of the West Bank—let alone the Sharjah Art Foundation, funded by Israel’s state enemy, the UAE—could put my Israeli visa application (without which, ironically, I could not travel to Ramallah) in jeopardy. But once past the infamous checkpoints, the improbable, counterintuitive spiral of Sharjah “inside” Ramallah “inside” Israel disappeared amid the many absurdities that constitute Palestinians’ everyday lives. Ramallah’s neoliberal, consumer-driven transformation has hardly normalized traces of the occupation, and this contrast proved fertile ground for taking a step back and reconsidering the implications of how earth came to be romanticized after the loss of the Palestinian sovereignty over their homeland, as Khaldi put it in her opening speech.
Against the expansive tyranny of geopolitics, Khaldi’s “Shifting Ground” covered as little space as possible: Eight newly commissioned publications (two in draft stage, another yet to come) were stacked in square niches, formed by two topographic models carved from a single, massive piece of stone—the work of designer and architect brothers Elias and Yousef Anastas—at the core of KSCC. An accompanying symposium upstairs, co-organized by Rana Anani and Yara Saqfalhait, served to “illuminate” these publications and introduce other relevant topics for discussion.
The Off-Site Project in Ramallah was a largely local affair that responded to the urgencies of its context with robust participation and attendance from Palestinian artists and professionals––from institutions such as the Al Ma’mal Foundation and Riwaq––who might cross several checkpoints every day to come to KSCC from Jerusalem. Besides a handful of Americans already living in Palestine or engaged in projects here (Casey Asprooth-Jackson, Jake Davidson, and Michael Rakowitz and his crew), most of the foreigners on-site were those on the symposium program (Keller Easterling, Filipa César, Chiara De Cesari, and Doreen Mende) and some members of the international press (Nicola Gray, ArtAsiaPacific’s H. G. Masters, and Hyperallergic’s Hrag Vartanian).
The first couple of lectures, featuring academics Abdul-Rahim Al-Shaikh and Suhad Daher-Nashif, tackled the charged topic of Palestinian cemeteries, including secret “cemeteries of numbers,” where bodies of Palestinian martyrs are buried close to the earth’s surface by Israelis, with only numbers for headstones. Calling them “an archive to abrogate the past,” Daher-Nashif also addressed martyrs’ “social role,” what happens when their bodies are returned to their families, and how agency over one’s own (or a loved one’s) death can constitute an act of resistance.
Presentations in the afternoon, on the other hand, were marked by an observational yet coolly playful approach to the built or “natural” environment: With Atlas Group–like twists, Inas Halabi “performed” her publication Lions Warn of Futures Present, crafting stories around the Israeli-generated excess of radioactive Cessium-137 in Hebron, Palestine. She used red filters—their tone proportional to the area’s activity—when photographing the Hebron wastelands, evincing a desire to engage the landscape while preserving distance. Benji Boyadgian followed suit, expressing his distaste for what he called “conflict aesthetics.” (“Are we journalists or are we artists?”) He spoke of his book Clogged and of painting big pseudo-Orientalist watercolors of tiny defunct Roman waterways between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
Before arak and Shepherds (a Bir Zeit beer) at the local art-gang haunts Radio or Garage, water came to the fore again in Jumana Emil Abboud’s dreamy performance Out of the Shadows, held amid the forlorn fig trees of the KSCC garden. In an atmosphere that recalled a cozy provincial summer cinema, Abboud and her young performer Salma Misyef took turns tenderly narrating a violent folktale with supernatural beings (among them ghouls and djinni) in Arabic and English, as well as painting or drawing over black-and-white acetate photographs of landscapes projected on a standing screen. In the end, they called out names of streams—an important backdrop for the tale—in Palestine, and those who held corresponding stitched nameplates stood up and were bestowed with the significance behind them. “You are Ein Fawar,” Abboud told me, savoring each syllable. “You are in Jerusalem and are inhabited by a good and a bad spirit. One is a free man and the other is a slave.”
The last full day of programming considered archival practices and places of memory: Spotlights on Morbid Symptoms—by Mimi Cabell, Samir Harb, and Nicola Perugini—and Subversive Film’s The Syllabus recovered, annotated, and remixed devices of colonial control and methods of insurgence. A whole arc of mnemonic dis- and repossession could be traced from the morning presentations on the 1978 International Art Exhibition for Palestine in Beirut—widely acknowledged as a partially lost “museum in exile”—to the fictional e-flux announcement of a “Last Museum,” that is, “the Museum of all Museums,” in Noor Abuarafeh’s lecture-performance.
There was some contention about whether Palestine could have a museum under occupation. What do you show in a museum about Palestine without reifying it into a romantic, monolithic narrative? Is the act of exhibiting even relevant? And is “relevance” even a necessary or useful goal for the arts?
Last year the Yasser Arafat Museum opened in Ramallah’s Muqata’a as a polished, largely didactic institution with a self-legitimizing, nationalistic discourse (save for Arafat’s headquarters under Israeli siege from 2002 to 2004, meticulously preserved without comment). In less than two weeks, “Jerusalem Lives” would open at the fledgling Palestinian Museum, the first exhibition since the Heneghan Peng–designed building debuted in May. Locals had very little idea about the direction of the museum’s inchoate programming. It didn’t seem so far from Khalil Rabah’s ongoing Broodthaersian museum-fiction Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind, begun in 1995, the self-avowed “most extensive cultural institution in Palestine.” Still not in its final form and also a part of the Ramallah Off-Site Project, Rabah’s Draft Guidebook for the museum promised a refreshing critique that ventured outside the museum itself, into the open.
So without much preparation I went north, to Bir Zeit, to see the Palestinian Museum with my own eyes.
When I arrived around dusk, it was largely deserted. Yazan Khalili—one of the artists in the inaugural show, and its technical director—and his team were outside, installing a work by Sudarshan Shetty. (Other works, by Athar Jaber and Adrián Villar Rojas, were coming along as well.)
The building itself was closed, so I zigzagged through the expansive, terraced gardens. As I walked downhill, each level revealed a new, cinematic view of the hills opposite, while rich aromas—lavender, mint, jasmine, and sage among them—overwhelmed my senses. I recalled a chapter from Abuarafeh’s commissioned novel “The Earth Doesn’t Tell Its Secrets” – His father once said, in which the opening of a certain “First Museum” without anything on display, just like the Palestinian Museum, is met with confusion and even anger by its early visitors. However, Nisreen, a photographer and friend of the protagonist in charge of documenting the opening reception, eventually discovers that her camera had recorded the works of art on view, which were simply invisible to the naked eye
Even though I feared surrendering to a romantic Orientalism at the sight of this stunning landscape, I began to wonder if this view—impenetrable as a whole but discernible in fragments—was the main show one was meant to see at the still-empty Palestinian Museum. On one of the lowest levels of the garden, amid olive trees glistening at dusk, a sentence from Jumana Emil Abboud’s performance from the night prior echoed in my mind: “No amount of trespassing, occupation, forgetfulness, will drive the pain away.”