Arrivals and Departures – Mediterranean

Published in catalog, Giuda edizioni, Ravenna (2012)

A man has to be born somewhere!

Ivo Andrić 


Metamorphosis often appears as a metaphor that has remained latent for a whole lifetime and is suddenly understood in visual terms1: the metaphoric process that leads to transformation passes decisively from the visual in the context of mythological tradition, precisely in order to render rationally comprehensible something that might otherwise remain relegated to the exclusive sphere of faith. In the metaphoric process, which leads to a change that translates this latency into matter, a deep idea of crisis is implicit; the unease perceived in the transformation may be condensed into anguish, pain of loss or, more sentimentally and profitably, into nostalgia. But the mythological argument, and substantially also the artistic one, feeds on transformation and metamorphosis.

And the very notion of Europe, from which we draw to define boundaries, transitory and presumed identities, and which constitutes an imaginary embankment against otherness, has its roots in a metamorphic voyage: young Europa abducted by Zeus in the form of a white bull. A voyage whose starting point was the coast of modern Lebanon. Young Europa, unaware of the long line of abducted voyaging women who would follow her, bore in her name the etymology of “broad face, broad gaze”, which is what we who are sick in vision feed on. And it is precisely from this concept of broad gaze that our curatorial voyage set out on this arbitrary mapping of the metamorphic visions of the artists invited. But let’s begin at the beginning. From that Europa who lingered with her handmaidens to play on the shores of Tyre. There’s a great deal of irony in the mythological construction of the arché, of the narration of the first cause: the same that drives the works of many of the selected artists. A light and disenchanted irony, a play of unexplored references and queries which seeks the way to finding names and combinations that are new but feed on a nostalgia without ID card.

Precise perception of the transeunt, of the temporary and sandy consistency of the glance, of one’s own glance, which draws on the visions of others but at the same time remains forever anchored to one’s own retina, is one of the codes binding works which are evidently marked by differences and resistances to the narration of a glance that is unique and included in one’s point of view. Yet in working with a visual grammar that employs many shared references it is possible that the metamorphic process of artistic creation might lead to assonant solutions. 

In inhabiting a glance we cannot preclude the space we inhabit, but at the same time the space chosen as ideal geography for this exhibition project has a sea at its centre which, antonomastically, is a place of transit and movement. A sea which we have named “the sea in the middle of the lands” but which in modern cartography is relegated, is no longer at the centre. This is why the first artistic act of “Arrivals and Departures” is a new cartographic survey by Riccardo Clementi who, with the humbleness imposed by the “broad glance”, sets the sea at the centre of his map, with its trenches and bathymetries, the white sea as it is called in Turkish (Akdeniz). Because in the act of naming there is also the act of creating, and we are reminded of this by Alban Muja, an artist from Pristina who concentrates his action on this different geography of names, running with the times, encountering places or making their bearings difficult. The dizziness of identity and naming lies at the heart of Dor Guez’s artistic inquiry which strongly features autobiographical events. In his videos and installations he returns continually to the question “Who am I? And who are you who calls me?”: the maelstrom created by the need for a category of people to exist and to know who they are in this case becomes a prison. The same identitary prison probed by Nilbar Gϋreş: the one created by perception of the female image and the female image itself, especially in a country of Islamic tradition. Gϋreş’ irreverent, sly and acute eye leaves no room for easy labels: apparel, place of the symbolic par excellence, and body, place of the human, become two favoured working materials. 

In this possible geography of the irreverent glance there is space for sound devices that cancel out the physical sign, as the installation by Younes Baba Ali which, in Morse code, takes the place of the muezzin’s call in summoning the faithful to prayer; or the Carillon by the collective Orthographe, a group hard to categorise since they are constantly nomadic between experimental theatre, visual art and near-dadaist actions. In this exhibition Orthographe will be putting on a table game, inviting spectators into a playful and estranging dimension: a hybrid version of Monopoly and Snakes & Ladders (which obviously harks back to the nostalgia code, needless to repeat at this point...) in which the players are called on to resolve the enigma of Curt Cobain’s death. 

On the ethicality of play as a liberating mode and indispensable cognitive tool, Adelita Husni Bey intervenes with a complex work inspired by educationist Francisco Ferrer who was executed in 1909: Ferrer’s Escuela Moderna was based on antiauthoritarianism, free expression of the individual and scientific and lay training. Aspects which constitute a leitmotif of the countries that overlook Ancona’s sea and which return in waves to question their citizens: education as liberation or coercion, quality and merit or happiness and relationship. Husni Bey’s A Holiday from Rules stands on the borderline between representation of power (or anti-power of liberating pedagogy) and the past that does not pass. Although in her active research at a Paris high school that practises today’s version of the Spanish martyr’s anarchic educational theories there is a clear desire to tackle the hic et nunc, she does not conceal a deeply nostalgic thread in the aesthetic vision, in the artistic rendering of the work. And nostalgia without memory is certainly a trait in many works. Her artistic transformation renders these options visible and recognisable, placing them in a dimension that is immediately comprehensible in the act of looking.

Powerful narrative tension emerges clearly in the collective piece TouchStories by Isabella Mara, Camilla Monga, Serena Porrati, Maria Giulia Serantoni, Domenico Stranieri and Ramona Zordini, which grew out of a workshop with Studio Azzurro: a story will save our lives and thus link up with our history. Narrators, narratees and public become one. 

The breadth of the glance and its stubbornness in being intangible are also the subject matter of Clio Casadei, an Italian artist who exhibits the bare result of her irremediably lost artistic actions, and Almudena Lobera who, through drawing in particular, materialises the frustration of this impossible mediation. 

There’s a progressive falling silent of artistic practice in the face of the still prevailing analysis of the postmodern and its epigones, a form of delegitimization which moreover clashes with the high number of people who may be identified by the name of artist. There is a reaction to this impasse by groups like /barbaragurrieri/group, a collective well known for its actions of sedimentation and iterations of language, and individuals that are difficult to categorise (unless by the forces of law and order) such as  Ganzeer, renowned for his martyrs of the revolution graffiti project in Cairo. 

A multitude of wide ranging glances characterised by powerful individual identities which cannot be hooked up to a shared movement except by the arbitrariness of the curator’s eye. So to say “Mediterranean” is an authoritarian action; better to say the multiple sea. 

But in spite of these individual vocations, this probing the space of the visual with one’s own voice in the context of the wide code of the contemporary, there are several traces which guided this authoritarian act of selection. A cartographic vocation that wanted to investigate representations of the mental landscape, for example. A concept which in itself came late in our culture. What is “landscape” for us today was initially a grouping of natural forces controlled by superior forces to which man submitted. Right down to the times of Caesar and Cicero2 there was no word for it, and when the word came it would always maintain (from landscape to Landschaft and paysage) “a fundamental ambiguity between the two semantic components, the naturalistic-environmental and the aesthetic.” Meaning that landscape is in our idea of landscape, it does not correspond to nature. And being “geography transported to the moral” it enveloped the idea of a “good”, of an aesthetic positive, which is perhaps one of the traces extinct in these landscape events intercepted and retransmitted by artists such as Randa Mirza, who transfers her own questions into landscape deceptions on the existence of the townscape of a city like Beirut, or the aestheticizing Noemie Goudal in whom we find the same vocation for the fictitious scenario, the construction of imaginary symbioses between places of anthropic abandon and human figures from the memories of fable. In both cases the photographic spectre does not record, it imposes its own glance without absolution. 

The predominant line in this artificial and synthetic geography has been the representation of power, understood as a device which contains fetishes and with which the artist has the possibility of dialoguing precisely by virtue of its transposition into icon, into an already naked image. Thus Ganzeer managed to preserve the murals – which represented the dead of the days of revolt in Egypt – from the purifying fury of the army by using the word “martyrs”: a word that halted the iconoclasm, arrested the anxiety to cleanse, to attack the “deterioration” (to employ a term much loved by our local purifiers). The clash between a word that speaks and that represents is at the heart of the work of Héla Lamine, who was also inspired by the Arab spring, particularly in Tunisia. In her work Nous ne mangerons plus de ce pains là she actually uses bread to reconstruct the former national icon Ben Ali, against whom the crowd chanted a slogan about bread. Power has become thing: bread that goes bad and shows putrefaction also marks the temporary nature of power. The hourglass has run out, irony remains in re-chewing words that become objects.   

Explicit in Mary Zygouri’s triptych is the metaphorical matching of animal/political – animal/poetic. The animal’s unpredictable reaction is startling for the spectator: the connection possibility of the event establishes a nexus of responsibility and skill. If the animal is unpredictable, might not man also be? Is there a prescribed and taken for granted fate, as is actually outlined today in the economic measures undertaken by delegitimized governments, but acting in virtue of this hypothetical predestination of the act? Zygouri acts as devastator. She does not bring answers but permits the suspension of the predictable. The anaesthesia of vision is replaced by the synaesthesia of action. Yael Plat interacts with the spectator through direct provocation towards political action: No Entry leaves no room for ambiguity. The door is closed to all the named categories, even to you who are reading the writing. 

A protagonist of change and also an inquirer into the forms that power assumes and that involve those subject to it, Wafa Hourani uses ironic forms to transpose history into pop metaphor, the history of a people substantially imprisoned and obliged to exile in their own land which has by now been worn down by mediatization. Slave to a past that does not pass, to a geography that interweaves power and bodies, Borjana Mrdja examines the breakdown and recomposing of the Bosnian frontiers, transferring the borderline onto the wound of her own hand, which is also subject to the wear and tear of time. A wear and tear which Bisan Abu-Eisheh attempts to resist by containing – by means of museographic and classificatory tension – the dispersion of the dust of the vanquished: for three years he collected the rubble of demolished houses in Jerusalem owned by Palestinian families and set it in a museum. Recomposing memory is one of the most latent anxieties of our contemporaneity, destined to an ethical Alzheimer’s, to a murmuring forgetfulness. 

Thus also Zoulika Bouabdellah who, in drawing up sumptuous and ironic representations of the geographies of female commonplaces in the Arab world, does not shrink from the illness of memory recovery in the form of ethical nostalgia, in works like Genie Lady, inspired by a sentimental Arab cult movie of 1948, redesigned with evident ironic references to the Orientalist tradition. Nostalgia for the future is found in the work of Danilo Correale who touches on a city – Istanbul – which reappears in many biographies and productions of these migratory artists. 

Naming and dreaming, the possibility of controlling the imagination and everything pertaining thereto through attribution of a name, and the loss of control through oneiric activity (or perhaps its acquisition in more interesting forms...): these are the questions that involve artists such as Jovana Komnenić, with her Book of Dreams, and are also traceable to Goudal. The step to Almudena Lobera, seeking manuals for mental places, is a short one: in her images of sober and suspended beauty, from this exercising of visual synthesis that is not closed to aestheticism, there emerge series that amaze with their philosophic cleanness and expository clarity. The drawing of a tree does not portray a tree but a tree that is observed3: the mental place is not shown but its observation is. Thus Mito Gegič re-evokes observation as method of interpretation in the digitalisation of a classically pictorial subject, in the apportioning of an image of hunting and hunters, animals destroyed and turned into still lifes against their will. 

Tiberi, Strappato and Nicolai, different in codes and references, take their place in the project Porta Pia – Open Academy, as mirrors of the glance, cultivators of the apparent abandonment of places: rather like guides of vision, without however a predetermined aim but, to quote Alex Langer, leapers of walls. 

And so we come back to the origins, to the wide gaze of Europa: the appearance of this journey of love cannot remain silent about the misfortunes her abduction brought about in subsequent stories. Pasiphaё, the Minotaur, Ariadne seduced and abandoned are only the first defeats of apparent harmony in the vision of this sea where the idea of Europe was founded, which for political and economic reasons would then shift its centre of gravity farther north, and then west and now – who can tell? – perhaps to the east. None of the invited artists believes in the apparent and sweetening ideology of a reconciled Mediterranean. Some concentrate on stating it through their art, others denounce it in their reticence about naming the country they were born in. In some cases the country’s name has changed: so it is not in political geography that we may find a line, since it deceives, but in the geography of poetics and questions, in momentary stylistic intermingling that denote a background in which, though noisy and acoustic, the figure has become background. The electronic environment has overturned point of view, no longer private, no longer comprised in one’s own point in time but immersed in a flow, with instantaneous access to all pasts and futures, in which one’s own point of view becomes irremediably irrelevant: and it is therefore in this resistance to volatilisation of the self that the identified traces link up and find a possible efficient cause. The need to classify, to map out and preserve is an artistic device with strong ethical connotations, a medicine to stem the dominant ideology of the substantive “present”, of the “necessary choice”.