A practical impossibility: how art plots Palestinian institutions

Say you wanted to write about Palestine in 2005. Say you were puzzling how best to describe relations between Palestinians, their state, and international actors. You decide to interview Palestinians about the conditions of political possibility they see between the various actors. After landing at the airport, getting your passport stamped with state insignia . . . Stop. The Egyptian itinerary does not work here. Intervening between your passport and the Palestinian border control officer is an Israeli soldier; filling your wallet in the place of Palestinian qurush are Israeli shekels. Do you have any roads left to reach Palestine? Start with the art, and you do. Anthropologist Chiara De Cesari’s examination of Palestinian biennales, museums, and exhibitions expands the foregoing argument for using art to study emergent social relations. In terms of context, we move from the strong Egyptian state to the nominal statelessness of Palestinians. Applied in a context of extreme precarity and systematized oppression of the formal right to exist, starting with the art can reveal how people set up new relations between functions conventionally associated with state entities and the very idea of a legitimate state. What De Cesari observes by following art practices is that Palestinians neither wait passively for the end of statelessness nor deny the situation self-deceptively. They live their would-be-state differently, through art projects.

In other words, art shows us (outside researchers) what it shows “native” audiences: the conditions of possibility that exist in human hands. Showing that possibility within institutionally specialized settings—among them, the Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind and the 2009 Venice Biennale—in turn produces new social arrangements.These can paradoxically be summarized as “a set of new ‘state’ (art and cultural) institutions under conditions of statelessness” (De Cesari 2012, p. 86, emphasis added). Perhaps even more flagrantly than Egyptian “young art,” Palestinian art (of any generation since 1948, at least) reverses the conventional relationship between artistic production and the state. Art writing since the sixteenth century has treated artworks as a representation of the state, a window onto a community coordinated by the state, and even posited that you cannot have art without stable state conditions.8 The establishment of national museums like the Louvre in the late eighteenth century concretized this representational metaphor, greedily gathering all revered painting, sculpture, and even musical instruments into one building to monumentalize the Napoleonic French state. What does this state-art relationship leave for Palestinians then?

The art lens, thus, offers the opportunity for researchers to observe and analyze attitudes, efforts, and expectations of political actors whose agential status is not otherwise legible. If we adhere to the epistemological assumption that art reflects given social conditions, there simply cannot be “Palestinian museums.” Indeed, as De Cesari noted in 2012, “Of the large-scale museum projects initiated since the creation of the PA [Palestinian Authority) in 1994 (including plans for a Palestinian Memory Museum [Welfare Association, in 2000]), not one has been successfully realized” (De Cesari 2012, p. 87). The official opening in 2016 of the Palestine Museum in Birzeit did not change this fact, for the museum stands basically empty, without any permanent staff and only sporadically housing shows curated from abroad. Moreover, for some, its placement in the West Bank, and on university land, only concretizes the negation of the Palestinian state, by the 1993 Oslo Accords, which have never resulted in final status talks to address the Palestinian claim to Jerusalem as capital. Freed of the assumption of art’s reflectiveness, however, De Cesari abandons the official map and follows art production that has circulated between Ramallah,Venice, Istanbul, and Eindhoven (the Netherlands).

Visit with De Cesari the various instantiations of Khalil Rabah’s Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind (ongoing since 2005), at which visitors take tickets, examine artifacts, read labels, scrutinize collecting practices, walk through corridors, read registries, celebrate memories, perform counter-documentation (to contest Israeli records), and in myriad ways ranging from minute to majestic, relate to the stateliness of the not-yet-realized Palestinian state. Rabah’s Palestinian Museum is an art installation that has traveled from Istanbul to Amsterdam, London, Rome, and most recently Beirut, always alighting in arenas devoted to art display. The installation consists of fossil cases, artifacts, documentaries, photographs, dioramas, and archives, much like any history museum. Attending to how these formal details operate on visitors to Rabah’s “museum,” De Cesari notes the common query that results, “But is it real?” (De Cesari 2012, p. 88). Hearing that response, De Cesari discards the epistemological assumption that art must have a secondary status to social reality. She treats the art itself as an agent in upsetting and refashioning social reality. Our sense of reality relies on material manifestations we take to index it, so if they change, reality effectively changes as the grounds for our social relations.

The agential claim De Cesari makes for Palestinian institutional art is that, it “calls into being, by representing beforehand, institutions that do not yet (fully) exist” (p. 82).'' Just as Winegar introduces “graduated sovereignty” to describe the world mapped around art, De Cesari introduces the term, “anticipatory representation,” to describe how art plots new social arrangements in its wake.This phrase enfolds a paradox because the “re-” of the second word points back to a time before the “anti-” of the first word. Just as Winegar follows young artists along their daily paths, De Cesari follows people concerned with knowing and representing Palestinian contemporary society on visits to the Contemporary Art Museum Palestine (CAMP). CAMP currently occupies a segment of the Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands, until the time when a proper home can be made for it in Jerusalem. That collection, De Cesari notes, contains a selection of pieces that represent the larger collection donated by artists to CAMP but physically dispersed due to the volatility of borders imposed on Palestinian movement. Representing a representation of the possibility-' of representation (i.e. the state-inaugurated museum), this selection of pieces refuses to relinquish the right to representation that would await international recognition of the Palestinian state (or at least the end of Israeli occupation). Thus, the art retains for current contemplation “the promise of a national institution to come,” as De Cesari puts it (p. 91). Start with the art; the state may follow.

Three functions of art De Cesari details are particularly interesting for thinking about the state and other bodies that organize political energies. The first and second deal with staging the state and its functions respectively. Art may host initiatives by non-state actors that would be impossible for state actors. An example of this is holding a Palestinian art biennale (as happened in 2005, 2007, 2009, 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018) in one’s capacity as a nonstate actor (for example, the non-profit organization Riwaq). Another example is to create a Palestinian national museum (as did the non-governmental Welfare Association, but see earlier caveat). In these stately venues, non-state actors, even transnational ones (including researchers), can meet the Palestinian state and explore the ambiguities the entity generates, rather than flee from its deficiencies. In terms of performing state operations, the transnational Palestine Museum operating in Birzeit and Beirut today7 crafts an inclusive, interconnective platform by, in words of lead strategic planner Beshara Doumani, “stitching together the fragmented Palestinian body politic by presenting a wide variety of narratives about the relationships of Palestinians to the land, to each other, and to the wider world” (quoted in De Cesari 2012, pp. 87—88). For researchers, this means that studying art sheds light on specific practices that have “state-effects.” This term refers to the experiences that stately entities tend to engender (but not monopolize).Third, and perhaps most importantly, the realm of art allows for mocking state operations. All of the instantiations of anticipatory art studied by De Cesari cultivate ambivalence, even irreverence toward the national format. They do so either through a sense of disjuncture (as when Rabah’s artifacts at the Palestinian Museum of Natural History reveal themselves to be recently made of olive wood rather than ancient as they at first purport to be) or exaggeration (as when the motive for their making in olive wood reveals itself to be a pun on rootedness). By7 inserting disbelief into the audiences relation to the present stately7 institutions, these artforms both exercise one’s ability to act with the state and remind one that the state has yet to materialize.Thus, De Cesari finds,“they plant and nurture the seeds for future national institutions,” rather than triggering despair at the current lack or lulling audiences with a compensatory7 sense of gratification (p. 88). Ultimately, the “practical impossibility” indexed by7 anticipatory Palestinian art becomes an impractical, but still real, possibility that, despite difficulty, can still endow life with meaning. In sum, surrendering the assumption that art must reflect given conditions, De Cesari develops a methodology7 of following human-to-human interactions triggered by7 art.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >