New York

Nashashibi/Skaer

Murray Guy

A number of commentators on recent work by British collaborative duo Nashashibi/Skaer (Rosalind Nashashibi and Lucy Skaer) use head-scratching as a place to start their ostensible analyses. “What do photos of Margaret Thatcher, a washed-up carcass, footage of an American passenger plane and a painting by Paul Nash have in common?” is the way, for instance, a review published last year in The Independent begins its discussion of Our Magnolia, 2009, a single-channel 16-mm film; the review follows this thread through, reiterating the work’s “obscure” and “incomprehensible” nature, yet (or perhaps for that very reason) all the while praising the artists for its affective register.

Our Magnolia (on display at Murray Guy with one other work for the pair’s first US solo show) certainly does call up and openly address the slippery, associative nature of meaning-making on a number of levels: Formal rhyming reminiscent of that in both Cubism and Surrealism brings a jolting animism to objects and a jolting depersonalization to humans—delivered by way of heavily coded dreamlike shifts and drifts in perspective that read as at once spontaneous and highly choreographed. It is notable, then, that discussions of Nashashibi/Skaer’s work so rarely reference such pertinent histories within the realm of art or, perhaps even more notably, consider it in relation to legacies of structuralist filmmaking, with which it seems overtly in conversation. Though one wouldn’t want to wholly align these younger artists with past producers, the bigger danger is reducing a work like Our Magnolia to merely a series of unmoored aesthetic-poetic permutations (even while celebrating that effect); to do so would be to willfully forget that the realm of aesthetics (and, for that matter, poetics) has long been the battleground for debating the political stakes of representation. (One need only recall György Lukács and Brecht’s tussles around the word realism to be reminded of the way in which opposing valences can antagonistically occupy a single term.)

It is in the tradition of such cultural and political debates—at least it seems to me—that Our Magnolia operates. In this lush, short (a mere four and a half minutes) film, Nashashibi/Skaer offer a kind of portrait of history as an operation of inheritance. Both women were born in the 1970s, and the images and footage included here—of, among other things, Margaret Thatcher, reactions to the looting of Iraq’s National Museum, and a decomposing whale half-buried in the sand—have much to do with the conditions of the artists’ own coming of age. That Nashashibi/Skaer’s film borrows its title and inspiration from Paul Nash’s 1944 painting Flight of the Magnolia is, to this end, quite pointed. That strange canvas, which appears repeatedly in their film, was painted in response to Nash’s fear of German aerial invasion. An official war artist for the British during World Wars I and II, Nash opted to present a magnolia blooming in the sky, much as bombs then threatened to do—yet the flower looks as much like the fleshy folds of an ear, since scale has been obliterated and all easy reference confounded.

Still, for all its obfuscating oddities, Nash’s Flight of the Magnolia represents a clear personal response to a public event. In Our Magnolia, too, Nashashibi/Skaer concoct that rare brew, at once critical and unabashedly emotional in tenor (the our of the title serves as an admission of sorts). In Pygmalion Event, 2008, the second and even shorter work at Murray Guy, a priest dons and displays a number of brilliantly colored robes, these designed by Henri Matisse himself, while a second screen delivers a seemingly random assortment of imagery depicting numbers, sailboats, fruit, and people. As with Our Magnolia, viewers might have had to read between the lines to articulate what the work is “about”—but rest assured, the lines are very much there to be found.

Johanna Burton