Henry Moore Institute

Approaching the ‘problem’ of Palestine/Israel within a contemporary gallery space calls for curatorial risk-taking and a substantial commitment from its viewers. Where The Object Quality of the Problem lacks in building a ‘complete’ political picture, it makes up for in conceptual rigour, attempting an exploration of geopolitics through sculptural discourse. An audience familiar with the Henry Moore Institute’s dedication to the sculptural object is for the first time confronted with an exhibition comprised exclusively of two-dimensional work. This strategy works to foreground the subject of physical and political space as it pertains to Israeli/Palestinian landscapes and built environments, and the borders that divide material and ideological territory. These volatile tensions form the basis for the selection of work by seven international artists, concerned with the spatial politics of the current conflict.

The exhibition catalogue includes a discussion between curator Penelope Curtis and Palestinian novelist and theorist Adania Shibli, arguing the suitability of the ‘Object Quality’ title (alternately Fragmented Spaces), as it fails to directly address the socio-political experience of two and three-dimensional space. Shibli here raises an important distinction between ‘sight’ and ‘site,’ one that I find particularly interesting in relation to the exhibition’s sculptural claims. That is, at what point do spatial politics take ‘shape,’ and how dependent is this upon the viewer’s participation when completely (at least physically), removed from the site of conflict? After 3 hours in the gallery space, I found myself suspiciously intrigued by the chosen title, and the works within the exhibition, as they attribute shape and form to current issues.

One way in which Object Quality succeeds is through a persistent use of landscape as a metaphor for division, displacement, and subversion. As seen in Francis Alÿs’ interactive video piece, 'Sometimes Doing Something Poetic Can Be Political and Sometimes Doing Something Political Can Become Poetic', the artist reveals the ephemeral nature of the Jerusalem border through a performative tracing, walking along the proposed line with a punctured can of green paint. While observing his rambling journey through neighbourhoods and checkpoints, the viewer is asked to choose from a screen of recorded dialogues offering a range of critical responses to the artist’s ‘border,’ that then become part of the work as both subtitle text and voiceover. The shape of Alÿs’ path and the viewer’s selected narratives remain tied to the earth; the surface of the problem upon which lines of segregation are revealed as merely subjective, temporal markings.

Daniel Bauer’s digitally montaged photographs combine elements of Arab villages and Jewish settlements in a single view, collapsing temporal and geographic space. His 'Composed View' panoramas suggest a territory shared by Palestinian and Israeli citizens, a vision hovering somewhere between utopianism and nostalgia for an impossible historical moment. His work places the viewer in a position of vantage while complicating any real sense of place. The artificiality of the proposed landscapes reinforces the permeability of the earth as it is dissected and rearranged according to the violent movement of settlements and checkpoints. The viewer is at a loss to identify the seams of this reconfigured place; much like the perceptual reshaping that has become the reality for those living within the site of conflict.

Michel Khleifi and Eyal Sivan’s 'Route 181: Fragments of a Journey in Palestine-Israel', presents a documentary style series of candid encounters with the ‘everyday,’ capturing informal interviews with Jews, Arabs, and immigrants in both Hebrew and Arabic languages. The artists, who are rarely caught within the camera frame, interrupt their happenstance interviews with provocative lines of questioning throughout the film’s demanding 270 minutes. This work seems better suited to a feature screening as its looped presentation dangerously leaves many viewers with a limited glimpse of a long and complex journey. Landscape is used as an important framing device throughout, with moving shots of the desert’s scattered Arab ruins, congested border zones, and the clean lines of new Jewish settlements. Perhaps this work most aptly illustrates the power of selection and presentation to manipulate the shape of political landscapes, and to fragment spaces of perception and meaning.