Zurich

Ursula Biemann

Helmhaus

A Palestinian is living in a refugee camp somewhere in Lebanon. His wife is still back in their village in the occupied territories. He manages to slip out of the camp unremarked and crosses the border to return home. He sleeps with his wife and returns to the camp the next day. His wife becomes pregnant and gives birth to a child. This happens several times. In the village, the authorities speculate about this woman’s steady flow of offspring. The villagers know exactly what is going on.

This story, from Ursula Biemann’s single-channel video essay X-Mission, 2008, exemplifies the subject of all four works shown here: the individual’s fate in a world of international migration. What is at stake is not globalization per se but rather the question of how a person lives without a homeland, over decades. The answers Biemann offers in her thirty-minute video can be illuminating, but they are not surprising. In an interview with an architect, for instance, she records a basic urban conflict being played out at the refugee camp: The army wants to build wider streets so as to keep control of the inhabitants, while the inhabitants want narrow alleyways to provide more of a social space. The conflict ends when the camp is destroyed.

Biemann gets close to her subjects. She travels to where conflict is taking place. She keeps a clear head in inhospitable surroundings. At the heart of her work, which straddles journalism and ethnography, is the interview. But there is a problem of perspective. Various disciplines overlap: geography, ethnology, philosophy, and international law; all sorts of experts are in search of the lost subject that the refugee seems to represent. The level of discourse is highly academic, considering that this topic was researched on location; when Biemann speaks with a lawyer about the legal status of refugees, for instance, the questions she poses are perfectly justified, but they have been asked many times before. In one brief passage, the artist describes how she retreats to the Swiss Alps to process what she has seen in the field. One wonders how much can be said about Palestinian shacks from the perspective of a Swiss mountain retreat.

In the installation Sahara Chronicle, 2006–2009, Biemann studies the desert as an important space of migration for Africans seeking to reach Europe. She is interested above all in the Tuaregs, who, with their century-old tradition of steering people through the desert, are the most sought-after guides for those attempting this journey. Biemann documents routes and reception camps; she speaks with smugglers and the police. Using five monitors, two projections, and wall texts, she juxtaposes personal narratives with writings on topology, commerce, and law, trying to incorporate the streams of people ceaselessly flowing north into a theoretical discourse. She opens up a productive space of thought that purely image-based media are unable to provide.

Biemann knows something about fieldwork, and she knows something about socioeconomic and geopolitical contexts, and when these spheres meet, her projects are solid. But seeing them in a kind of retrospective, one monitor after the other, leaves one with a disquieting feeling of surfing the world’s social conflicts. The problem may be with the institution: How many interviews and how much documentary imagery can a museum stand?

Stefan Zucker

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.