"The Hugo Boss Prize 2008: Emily Jacir"
An artist pursues revenge over intellectual honesty.
Thu Mar 5 2009
Photograph: Courtesy The Artist And Alexander And Bonin, New York
Time Out Ratings<strong>Rating: </strong>1/5
It’s probably unwise for anyone, let alone an art critic, to wander into the morass that is the Middle East, but the work of Emily Jacir leaves viewers little choice. Born in Bethlehem in 1970, Jacir currently splits her time between New York and Ramallah in the West Bank. Now exhibiting at the Guggenheim as this year’s recipient of the museum’s Hugo Boss Prize, Jacir’s installation, which brings together two prior pieces titled Material for a film and Material for a film (performance), expresses her very strong feelings about the Mideast conflict. She lets you know in no uncertain terms which side she’s on; unsurprisingly, it is not Israel’s.
Jacir’s tendentiousness is hardly a career impediment in an art world where any expression of identity appended by the word politics is applauded with the gusto of a seal performing at Marine World. But one can sympathize with her having to work in a country that’s so overwhelmingly pro-Israel. Most Americans see the Jewish state as a sister democracy. Cynics might say we share common histories of uprooting indigenous populations, though such a comparison overlooks the fact that the argument over Palestine revolves around the question of just who is indigenous: the Jews who conquered the place three millennia ago, or the Arabs who did so 2,000 years later? (Maybe neither group belongs!) It’s also worth noting that when, for example, Andrew Jackson evicted the Cherokee from Georgia, there was no CNN or BBC to report the fact, no horde of indignant university students to condemn his actions. Israel enjoys no such refuge from international opprobrium, even when countering existential threats.
Yet some of the loudest voices questioning Israel’s policies—indeed, its very viability—are those belonging to Israeli artists. Jacir’s work, on the other hand, appears unconstrained by intellectual honesty.
Photograph: Sarah Shatz
Instead, the show builds a case for the martyrdom of Wael Zuaiter, a PLO representative who was assassinated—murdered if you prefer—by Mossad agents in Rome on October 16, 1972, in retaliation for the killings of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics by the Black September organization. Zuaiter, it was alleged, was a key member of the group; he’d been arrested by the Italian police several months earlier in connection with a plot to bomb an oil refinery, but was released. After his death, the PLO denied he had any involvement with Black September.
Zuaiter, who also spoke Italian, English and German, was a man of letters. He was handsome, and found occasional work as a movie extra, most notably in the original Pink Panther, a looping clip of which plays here on a plasma screen. At the time of the shooting, he was beginning to translate Thousand and One Nights into Italian. An Arabic copy of the book was on his person as he was gunned down. A photograph of the tome, a bullet hole near its spine, serves as the piece of the true cross around which Jacir builds a reliquary to the fallen intellectual.
Gathered are family photographs, personal letters and samples of his writing, like the newspaper article with the headline, testimony of a militant palestinian. There are also facsimiles of the many books—by Pound, Wordsworth, Genet, Whitman, Eliot, Engels—in Zuaiter’s personal library. How, Jacir seems to ask, could such a cultivated individual be involved with killing people? The implied answer is that, of course, he couldn’t have been.
Jacir appears blind to the possibility that evil can fester in the most erudite and aesthetically inclined of souls, including, apparently, her own. That much is suggested by the show’s centerpiece, a cenotaph for Zuaiter made up of 1,000 blank books. Arrayed in their own space on matching white shelves, each has a bullet hole put there by Jacir with a .22 caliber pistol—Mossad’s weapon of choice in Zuaiter’s rubout. The Guggenheim’s press materials include an image of the artist at a shooting range, grimly “creating” the piece as part of a performance. It isn’t included in the installation, which makes one wonder if Jacir had second thoughts about owning up to the violence of this gesture. But own it she does.
The artist never makes a convincing case for Zuaiter’s innocence, though that hardly matters, because the salient issue is one she avoids altogether: If Zuaiter was blameless, weren’t the Munich 11 as well?
Jacir, however, seems more intent on pursuing her own Mossad-like mission, a metaphorical act of revenge that is little more than a high-cultural addition to an unending cycle of brutality. That such a crude, self-indulgent exercise has been given one of contemporary art’s most prestigious awards is unfortunate, though not, sadly, entirely unexpected.