PRINT February 2004


On the wall of Emily Jacir’s studio in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn is a photograph roughly torn from a newspaper. Dominating the frame is a billboard featuring two men on horses, the text saying, simply, “Marlboro.” Below the billboard are stationed two tanks and helmeted soldiers at turrets. The photograph is of the West Bank. The streets are Palestinian. The tanks are Israeli. The billboard is ostensibly American, but it really belongs to that supranational agora of branding: Hovering over the grim reality on the ground, it is seemingly above borders, above politics, existing in some sphere that is cross-stitched with dissipating jet contrails and the green blur of currency flows. This is how the world is often portrayed now—anywhere can be Marlboro Country. Nationalities are mere formalities. We are all of us frequent fliers, racking up psychic jet lag (William Gibson suggests in Pattern Recognition that the soul, dangling umbilically in the jet stream, trails behind the Boeing 747 and only arrives sometime after landing), having to ask for passport stamps simply to prove we’ve been in all of the Benelux countries.

And yet those tanks. They wait, poised beneath these expanses suggested by Marlboro, posing occupation against liberation, the contrast providing a portrait of the circulation and stress points of millennial culture and economies. It is a telling photo for Jacir, a thirty-three-year-old Palestinian-American artist whose oeuvre is currently on view at Linz’s O.K. Centrum für Gegenwartskunst. In a sense, she embodies this condition of late cosmopolitanism: born in Saudi Arabia, high school in Italy, college in Texas, stints in Paris, the Rocky Mountains. She now “divides her time,” as the suggestive expression goes, between the West Bank city of Ramallah and New York City. Not surprisingly, her work has been dominated by travel. Not the act of tourism per se, but simply the process of movement, the phenomenon of being in a certain space at a certain time, in effect underscoring what it means to cross borders that can be fluid and invisible or as palpable as a tank cordon.

Her first major work was Change/Exchange, produced in 1998 while Jacir was a resident at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris. Beginning with one hundred dollars in American currency, she traded the money for French francs, losing a bit to exchange rates, and then back into dollars, losing a bit more, proceeding apace until she was down to a few coins that the agencies refused to convert. At each agency, she took a photograph and saved the receipt, recording the transaction to compose a final work that, juxtaposing these two documents, is police-evidence simple. Of course, there is a certain poignancy in receipts, which are the snapshots of the modern bureaucratic state, a way of marking our life passage in crisp, frozen detail. The work might be read as an empiricization of the metaphysics of travel, since Jacir plays with travel’s curious economy—the floating daily exchange rates, the loss or gain of hours crossing time zones—while also suggesting a race against mortality itself, the frantic struggle to preserve eroding value.

The kind of crossings undergone in Change/Exchange take on a new meaning in the series “Where We Come From,” 2001–2003, which was first produced as a magazine publication in the Palestinian territory before appearing last spring at Debs & Co. in New York. (“It would have been stupid to have it in a gallery since no one can get there anyway,” she notes.) Next month’s Whitney Biennial will feature an abbreviated version. As with a number of the artist’s other works, this one, with its common words juxtaposed with images (those same things that create the identities of passports or the mythology of billboards) concerns Palestine—Jacir’s declared homeland. Rather than flaunt abstract and unfettered global movement, this piece is firmly set in a region that has become one of the most intensely localized places on Earth, a place of Jersey barriers, tank cordons and concertina wire, rising concrete walls, internecine boundaries, and checkpoints that increasingly constrict and regulate movement. The conceit of “Where We Come From” is stunningly plain: She asks a number of Palestinians, both exiles and those in-country, “If I could do something for you anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?” Jacir, the holder of an American passport, becomes an agent of wish fulfillment, enacting some twisted geopolitical take on the old game show Queen for a Day. No one’s asking for consumer baubles here, though. The requests are as poignant as they are quotidian. (Take this photo to my mother in Gaza. Play soccer with a boy in Haifa.) One could compare Jacir to the kind of virtual-reality avatar that appears in the video game Sim Nation; not only does she stand in for the people who make requests of her, but she works in a place whose national identity is shattered into a thousand different micro-localities, like pixels on a screen. Indeed, the virtual-reality metaphor is perhaps more appropriate than one would hope: In conversation, Jacir recalls the example of a graduation ceremony at Birzeit University that a group of parents, unable to attend in person owing to security restrictions, watched in Gaza via remote video.

Jacir sees her work as a matter-of-fact extension of her own existence, saying, “I’ve spent my entire life going back and forth, connecting with people, family, and friends. Carrying things back and forth was natural, something that I was already doing anyway.” One thing she gains in her travels is perspective. “When you leave [Palestine] and come back, you witness firsthand how rapidly these borders are being created. There are things I did just one or two years ago that I couldn’t do now because the situation on the ground has changed so much.” In Crossing Surda (a record of going to and from work), 2002, she surreptitiously recorded her twenty-minute daily commute through the Surda checkpoint, en route from Ramallah to work at Birzeit University. Shot from the knee-high perspective of a carried bag, the footage takes us from a clamoring pool of cars and vans, through a landscape of concrete barriers (often painted with the Israeli flag), past the occasional tank, then down a dreary, interminable dirt road and past another set of barriers and tanks, and into another pool of vehicles.

“We travel like other people, but we return to nowhere,” begins a poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. It is an exile’s song, the haunting lament of a condition the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz described as “belonging at a near distance.” Jacir’s most recent works eerily invoke Darwish’s sentiment. For ENTRY DENIED (a concert in Jerusalem), 2003, the artist took the noted Palestinian-born singer and oud player Marwan Abado, who lives in Vienna, as her subject. Scheduled to give a concert in East Jerusalem last July, Abado was jailed upon arrival at the Tel Aviv airport and returned the next day to Austria, despite carrying papers from the UN and other agencies. Jacir filmed Abado in Vienna playing what he would have performed in Jerusalem. In another work, linz diary, 2003, Jacir inserts herself each day at 6:00 pm into the frame of one of the Austrian city’s thirty-six webcams. She is marking her residency there, proving her existence, but also becoming part of a global network of images, powered by remote servers in unknown locations. She is everywhere and nowhere, a ghost citizen in an imaginary republic, an exile in Marlboro Country. There is no passport required, but the sense of belonging is as fleeting as air. “We have a country of words,” wrote Darwish, referring to the Palestine of the mind that is inculcated from afar. Jacir’s works, her rites of return, are about crossing from that place of the imagination into the territory of the real, speaking the words of those who cannot speak, to an audience that cannot gather.

Tom Vanderbilt is the author, most recently, of Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America (Princeton Architectural Press, 2002).