Khalil Rabah: New Sites for the Museum Departments or four places to visit Heaven
Sfeir Semler Gallery, Beirut
18 January 2018 - 7 April 2018
Khalil Rabah’s Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind is a large multifaceted project that he has been engaged in for at least a decade. While Rabah set out to critique Palestinian national representation, he inadvertently founded the first Palestinian national museum in the beginning of the 2000s. The traditional forms and departments he used in his Palestine Before Palestine exhibit (2005) at the Istanbul Biennial return, here, in what seems like a more contemporary museum. The problem with the museum as such in Palestine is that it is symptomatic of a desire towards the end of a politics of emancipation; the museum exhibits the corpse of the Palestinian struggle in order to ensure that it is not resurrected. Deeming objects to belong to the past signals the end of one system of thought and a passing unto another. Thus, Palestinian museums are impossible museums. What Rabah attempts to do with his museum is the impossible. It is simultaneously a mocking of the alpha national museum, and a serious attempt at representing collective desire and a Palestinian state of being, rather than a Palestinian State. This could be done only by questioning the mode of representation itself, and is where the museum becomes a medium.
One of the most important features of New Sites for the Museum Departments Or four places to visit Heaven is that it is a new curatorial arrangement of past examples with new works. The repetition with which Rabah shows artworks, images of artworks and paintings of images of artworks (which could also be seen in his Ready Made Representations, 2012) in different versions of his museums signals towards an unfinished, and unfixed, history and present, which negates the event as history altogether. The outcome is a non-linear genealogy of collective experience, where it records the singularity of events outside of singularity, one that is contingent on erasure and beginning anew rather than a linear accumulation.
One walks into an immaculate environment of maps overlaid on the floor. The maps are the fragmented geographies of Palestine; area C, the West Bank, Gaza, and what looks like Jerusalem, but is also Nova Palestina, a favela that has been transformed by Rabah to become part of the Palestinian geography. The maps are made out of leather, with classical Palestinian embroidery patterns sewn into them. The maps are reminiscent of trophy hides, hunted down and defeated geographies, they are befitting of the entrance of this museum since a museum is usually full of hunting and war trophies. It is where corpses are exhibited in order not to resurrect them.
In the next room, titled Area C Fields of Gold, Botanical Department, named after the notorious Oslo accord bantustanization of Palestinian territory one sees In Vein a sculpture made of a rock on a forklift that is wrapped with a plastic tube filled with olive oil. Behind it on the wall, there is another similar scene, but in the form of a small painting, we see Rabah’s twisted bicep with a similar, smaller stone wrapped with a plastic tube and filled with olive oil. The painting is drawn from a documentation photograph of In Vain, an endurance performance by Rabah in the 1990s. Here, one observes many transformations; the documentation of the performance becomes a painting, historicizing the performance and perhaps also aestheticizing it to the extent that it loses its function, and its meaning, which has surrendered and withdrawn.
The stone in Palestinian political iconography has been associated with the image of the first Intifada, when the act of stone throwing was seen as a gesture, almost a dance, and became the icon for Palestinian resistance. After the signing of the Oslo Accords the act and the object lost its potency along with the image, which became somewhat pastiche, as some wondered whether it became an act in vain. This is not to limit Rabah’s work to the political meaning of the stone, but the work is related to the representative image of the Palestinian collective. The olive oil filled plastic tube, wrapped around the stone, attaching the stone to his arm looks like a vein, and feigns an arm muscle in reference to the image of the hero.
Rabah uses the magic of the museum in several of his works, In Vein presents the failure of representing the contemporaneity of the performance, simultaneously rejecting the act of representing through recording, he aestheticizes his performance immediately as if it were not his but more a product of its time. He remakes the work twice, the second version is only the object, a much larger stone that seems to have grown since the 1990s to the degree that it requires a forklift and not an arm to lift it and blocks the entrance of the exhibition. The stone compels one to think of Sisyphus, that man who spends eternity pushing a stone up the mountain only to see it fall back. One can feel the heaviness of the stone on one’s arm, even more so with the painting on the wall suggesting that the stone is to be carried like a burden. In this space, olive oil and olive trees seem to be the connecting thread. On the wall close to the stones there is a black and white photographic triptych of Rabah sleeping next to an olive tree and inside an olive tree; a few steps away is a colored film still of the artist flying in front of the tree, and in the corner Critical Interrogations (1999) where olives are being crushed with a stone one after the other, re-constituting both, the stone, and the olive.
Although taking other forms, such as photographs rather than video, Rabah made these works at the end of the 1990s, and can be seen as his early experiments in video art. He takes loaded Palestinian symbols and tropes, like the olive tree, and attempts to forge a new relationship with them. The generation of artists to which he belongs inherited the serious and often limiting legacy of politically-committed art that became obsolete in the 1990s when the Oslo Accords failed to offer a solution to ending the occupation. Rabah was attempting to forge a new aesthetic language that engaged with those very symbols by attempting to obstruct their auras. However, he is conscious of this history and thoughtful of his own part in it, as he reviews and reconsiders his work. Some of the videos become black and white images as if to connote a past, while others remain as videos in loop. Critical Interrogationsis particularly poignant when seen with the massive stone on the forklift and the painting of In Vain; one completes the other given that in order to pickle olives one must destroy them. This can be seen as an attempted destruction of the trope of the olive/tree, and reformulating a relationship with it.
Rabah does not stop there: next to the monitor are five small olive trees in a glass case. Titled After 12 years, which is ongoing and dates back to 1995, the project is about five trees that Rabah planted outside the United Nations Office in Geneva. Uprooted from their original home in Palestine, the trees were replanted as symbols of peace in Switzerland, however, when Rabah returned to Geneva, only one remained. After finding out about the removal of the other four trees, the botanical department of The Palestinian Museum for Natural History and Human Kind sued the UN for neglect. The five miniature olives function as an illustrative diorama of the story. The artwork is made up of several artworks overlaid on top of each other. One must keep reminding oneself, this is a museum. Yet it is a museum that betrays the promise of museumification, the artworks are always in flux. Not only is The Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Human Kind an attempt to deconstruct many Palestinian tropes and nationalist symbols but it is also a turning of the whole logic of the museum as the artist historicizes, updates, changes, reconsiders, and offers new readings of his own works in addition to others. It is as if he is a curator intervening in a collection again and again, always with the feeling that it is unfinished, inadequate, or too late for the present.
The museum’s Earth and the Solar System Department houses a new rendering of the iconic artwork by Suleiman Mansour’s Jamal Al Mahamel (1973). The original painting depicts an old porter carrying a heavy ocular shaped sack on his shoulder; with the image of Jerusalem inside it, the background is vacuous, suggesting a state of exile. The painting was printed as a poster in the 1970s in Palestine and remains hanging in many local homes. Rabah commissioned a Chinese studio to make a painting of a photograph of the painting, and a hyperrealist sculpture of the old man, subtracting the burden. The original work was painted twice; the first version was gifted to Muammar Gaddafi but destroyed during the American bombing in the 1980s, leading Mansour to paint a second one. Rabah’s painting is from a photograph of Mansour’s half painted canvas, with a photo of the original stuck on the side of the canvas and the 1970s poster of the painting hanging on the wall in the background, connoting three different versions of the painting. Rabah’s mise-en-scene can be read as the fourth adaptation.
In the hyperrealist sculpture of the old man, the lack of the bundle accentuates the curvature of the porter—the burden instead becomes a condition. One can sense the disappearance, or the withdrawal of something in each version of the work—perhaps it is the aura of the original, which does not appear at all. However, Rabah’s reworking could point to the Palestinian collective, or its representation. In a sense, the burden the old man carries is loss itself. At the same time, this deliberate omission could signal the forgetting of the burden or the impossibility of representing this loss as it crushes every inch of its subject.
Jamal Al Mahamel has not yet been exhibited in a Palestinian Museum, this would be the first time, a historical moment, where it enters the museum in its copy-form, and most importantly its incompleteness/unfinished quality, gesturing towards a counter museumification. It is not yet ready to enter the institution of the museum, as the histories and events it represents are still underway, still in struggle. Rabah’s museum is a museum that leaks; almost every object is unfinished, not ready, has yet to be re-made, forever in the making. In the corner of the same room we see another object where a similar logic applies, that of subtraction: Tattoo (1997) in which Rabah extracts black threads from the keffiyehand piles them in its midst. This work is most pertinent today given that this icon of the Palestinian revolution—epitomized by Arafat’s headgear—has lost its power and emancipatory potential. Rabah simultaneously reveals what has withdrawn but also performs an act of removal, as if confiscating its iconic legitimacy. This disillusion with the icon and the political force behind it was articulated by Rabah in the late 1990s after the signing of the Oslo Accords and the transformation of the PLO from a revolutionary movement to a bureaucratic body unable to realize any sense of justice for Palestinians. Today, we can see Rabah’s keffiyeh very clearly.
In another corner of the room Rabah takes this even further. There is a rusted box, similar to a treasure box that could also be a sarcophagus. The lid is on the floor, and a light emanates from inside the trunk. One is surprised to find the neon signs of the letters P, L, and O in Hebrew in the box. One needs to tread very carefully around this work, as one might assume that Rabah is identifying a betrayal on the part of the PLO, yet again it is crucial to remind oneself this is a museum. A rusted trunk is presented here as an artifact, meaning what is inside is not from today but rather belongs to a certain past. Another reading of the work is that Rabah offers a blueprint for a future in which the nature of the struggle changes, where it could morph into a struggle for civil rights regardless of language.
In the room dubbed The Geology and Paleontology Department, Gaza Zoo Sculpture Garden we see a print of a cross section of a Palestinian landscape where a destroyed building stands, split in half by a wall and a watchtower and an Israeli tank on the other side. Beneath this typical landscape we see a tunnel. The diorama is flat and hung on the wall, there is something eerie about it, immaculate and devoid of people almost as if depicting the aftermath of an ultimate disaster. Yet immediately opposite is what looks like the back of a small truck containing debris. As if what was emptied out of the tunnel in the flat cross section on the wall transferred its volume onto another object. Again there seems to be a returning gesture, material is lacking in one work, only to be found separated in another as if Rabah is sifting among the rubble searching for some thing.
The truck is flanked with hovering surveillance mirrors akin to those used at checkpoints in order to see what lies beneath cars. On the wall there is a flat screen with another video by Rabah from the 1990s, Body and Sole, in which he is shown trying to fit a left shoe on his right foot. Another video next to it from the same period is titled “a this and a that” where he is seen playing with an elastic band, tangling and untangling it endlessly. On the shelves is a sculptural work titled Right and Right, a pair formed from two right shoes. It seems in this section of the Museum there is an ongoing corporeal struggle, a feeling of futility. Both videos are also in loop, adamantly attempting to fit or make something work but without an outcome, therefore entering the realm of the absurd. Perhaps this is a parody of life in Gaza, or what it is rendered in this museum, a sculpture garden where life has been reduced to bare life and one can only document the passing of time. This state of things not fitting with each other is actually quite fitting with the state of museums in Palestine today. While forms such as the nation state and the museum are incompatible with a continuing struggle for emancipation against settler colonialism, there is a resolute determinacy to enforce them by deeming this struggle as history exhibited in museums, and the appearance of normalized life under a state that does not have any sovereignty. However, one must embrace wearing right and right shoes, and to instead dismantle recognizably normalized forms.
Devoid of humans, the anthropology department also betrays its promise. At first glance, one seems to be returning home. There are sculptures that look like furniture, including a work made out of a closet, yet this specific object is made uncanny as the clothes are hung at the back of the closet instead of its interior. In front of the closet is another old work by Rabah titled Womb (1997), a suitcase empty other than a chair inside, not quite fitting, both covered with wound plaster. The suitcase is clearly a reference to exile; home is interchangeable, mobile, worn out, and haggard from constant movement. The furniture is akin to what one would find in domestic settings, but is almost anthropomorphic in form with the addition of the clothes, causing the familiar to become strange. On the walls this surreal environment is echoed by large-scale canvas prints of a refugee camp with all the anthropomorphic shapes cut out. What appears to be a refugee camp, however, is in fact photographic material from a makeshift town /favela in Brazil called “Novo Palestina,” or New Palestine. Hence, it is truly a return home, albeit to a new impermanence, as always, where being Palestinian is a condition associated with precarious living, refugee camps, and the ontology of exile.
1. Installation view of Area C Fields of Gold, Botanical Department. Courtesy of the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg.
2. All is Well (2017). Courtesy of the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg.
3. Installation view of Right and Right, Gaza Zoo Sculpture Garder, Geology and Palaeontology Department. Courtesy of the artist and Sfeir-Semler Gallery Beirut/Hamburg.