PRINT January 2007

Rosalind Nashashibi

Rosalind Nashashibi, Midwest, 2002, stills from a color film in 16 mm, 12 minutes.

A PLUG SOCKET, three screw holes in the floor, the back of an electric toothbrush . . . A pair of earrings above a string of pearls, a bank logo, two wooden knobs and a letter slot . . . Sequences like these make up one part of Eyeballing, a film shot in New York in 2005 by London-based artist Rosalind Nashashibi. The objects appear on-screen for around fifteen seconds apiece in static, unbroken shots. Given the title’s prompt, you quickly get the picture: Each item appears to have two rudimentary eyes and a mouth. They are not so disparate after all, but form a collection of found faces, an absurd archive.

Like Nashashibi’s other films, Eyeballing was shot on 16 mm, and the medium in this instance has a particular effect. Seeing faces in random objects is child’s play, but here, with a basic knowledge of film, you realize immediately that the artist had to set up a camera and tripod for every carefully exposed shot. Rather than suggesting the spontaneity of a game, the work therefore recalls serious 16-mm films—particularly the rigorously edited first section of Hollis Frampton’s Zorn’s Lemma, 1970, another collection of signs filmed in New York. But what makes Eyeballing remarkable is the way in which the city is integrated into its fabric. The “faces” sequences are intercut with passages showing cops standing around during breaks outside the First Precinct station in Lower Manhattan. Nashashibi filmed the police from quite close by—from across the street, it appears. They do not acknowledge her, and so you cannot help but wonder whether her activity was illicit, even illegal. What does it mean to survey the surveyors in post-9/11 New York? Eyeballing poses this question but deflects an answer, for each time you concentrate on the police, the “faces” intrude again—absurd, melancholic, and deformed. The two juxtaposed sequences of Eyeballing initially seem distinct but can be connected. If the faces stand in for real people, suggesting that Nashashibi found it impossible to represent authentic individuality in an administered society, the police represent the enforcers of such administration. Another take would be to note how the face passages, like the NYPD ones, provoke questions about paranoia and control. Forcing the viewer to an awareness that there are hidden faces all around us, Nashashibi represents the paranoid subject’s encounter with New York while simultaneously demonstrating what it means to be in control of vision. After all, you see faces only because she has persuaded you to—through her title and selection, but also by cropping each shot and filming it from an angle of her determination. The film raises crucial issues about very contemporary aspects of subjectivity and visuality, but does so without announcing itself as a meditation on these questions, and its subtlety is a major part of its success.

Eyeballing increasingly appears pivotal to Nashashibi’s practice, consolidating various themes and formal strategies developed in her work over the past seven years. She was initially recognized for the three-and-a-half-minute film The States of Things, 2000, which, like Eyeballing, is structured through a collision of two disjunctive elements. The grainy black-and-white images were shot in Glasgow, where Nashashibi went to art school, and show women shopping at a charity jumble sale, but the sound track is a ’20s love song sung by Egyptian diva Um Kulthoum. The music led many viewers to assume they were looking at an exotic bazaar rather than a humdrum Scottish Saturday. In its use of footage made without the subjects’ knowledge, Midwest, 2002, shot in Omaha, also presaged Eyeballing. Nashashibi initially meant only to record users of Omaha’s public spaces, but it turned out that the people on the streets were the homeless and the unemployed. Midwest is a haunting portrait of the dispossessed, but by keeping shots quite short, Nashashibi prevented viewers from indulging in the questionable activity of projecting onto, and pitying, the film’s characters.

A similar editing pace structured Hreash House, 2004, made in Nazareth, Israel, where Nashashibi, whose father is Palestinian, has family friends. The film portrays a family in the middle of a fractious zone, but everyday rituals proceed, and no one seems to notice the filmmaker, who forges a tender and unsensational representation of Palestinian life. Yet like Midwest, Hreash House posed problems for the artist. Were her films becoming overly narrative, and reliant on the characters of her subjects? In Park Ambassador, 2004, she eschewed real people altogether. Shot at a Glasgow playground, the film shows the painted frame of a derelict swing set. Centered in the image, still against the windblown trees, the frame appears like an ancient idol. With her title Nashashibi connects the primitive figure in the park to that of the ambassador, indicating that the “magical power” with which societies once endowed totems persists in the authority invested in the modern state official. Here (as in Eyeballing) Nashashibi anthropomorphizes objects not to produce a naive account of the world but to open up political questions.

Eyeballing, rooted in all these earlier works, has also launched new trajectories in Nashashibi’s art. Its sense of illicit activity is conveyed in a different way in another film made by Nashashibi in New York: Flash in the Metropolitan, 2006, a collaboration with Lucy Skaer, was shot in pitch darkness after the crowds left the museum (the Met gave permission, but there is still the sense of intrusion). Occasionally the dark is banished as powerful film lights briefly illuminate a painted urn, a figure, or a mask. Sometimes the glow of the bulbs reflects warmly off ancient metal, but elsewhere the light is so intense as to seem violent, burning away the object rather than rendering it visible. Flash manages at once to suggest an assault on the museum and to retrieve the original psychic weight of the artifacts in its collection. No longer neutralized under vitrines and constant light, the masks and figures appear magical once again.

It had seemed from Midwest and Hreash House that Nashashibi’s work was primarily motivated by sociological inquiries, but now the artist’s concerns appear more diverse and, in the context of contemporary artists’ films, less familiar. What’s refreshing is her ability to portray the psychological atmosphere of locations and to address major questions about the power of political and cultural institutions through anthropomorphic images and through a recourse to the language of primitivism—strategies that might seem as defunct as the idols and figures she filmed at the Metropolitan but that she revitalizes. Yet all along, Nashashibi’s formal sensibilities have separated her work from the documentary style that the early films might have seemed to approach. The collision in her art of disjunctive elements—whether sound and image or different kinds of sequences—has always meant two things: first, that her work creates space for the viewer to join in creating meaning rather than just receiving it; and second, that established ways of controlling and categorizing images and ideas crumble.

Mark Godfrey teaches at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College, London.