The Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center on Raja Street in Ramallah, which hosted the talks and some performances in the program of “Shifting Ground: The Underground Is Not the Past,” the third off-site project of the Sharjah Biennial 13, looking at the theme of earth. All photos by HG Masters for ArtAsiaPacific.

Aug 21 2017

Sharjah Biennial 13: Ramallah, “Shifting Ground: The Underground Is Not the Past” (Part 1)

by HG Masters

Everything in Palestine—and even the idea of Palestine itself, as poet Mahmoud Darwish suggested—also seems to exist simultaneously as a metaphor. While the gap between the imagined (or desired) and reality is often wide, there is nevertheless always a terra-firma reality underfoot. Yet it too is continually being destabilized and eroded, by ramifications of the 50-year Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, and the colonial projects of Zionism and the British Empire before that. Reflecting on the many strata of history in Palestine, through a focus on the idea (or metaphor) of “earth,” the third of Sharjah Biennial 13’s offsite programs was centered in Ramallah, the hilltop city located 15 long kilometers north of Jerusalem, from August 10 to 14 (with later, additional programs in Haifa). Organized by SB13 interlocutor Lara Khaldi, with Rana Anani and Yara Saqfalhait, the events comprised a series of talks, publications and performances with the title of “Shifting Ground: The Underground Is Not the Past.”

The daytime talks and performances were held at the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center, once a family mansion in the old part of Ramallah. (There’s a full-length portrait of Mahmoud Darwish in the building’s stairwell; he used one of the rooms as his office after his return to Palestine.) The first evening’s event was a version of Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s lecture-performance Bird Watching (2017), in which the artist and “private ear” examines the forensic potential of background noise in audio recordings, which leads an ingenious mapping, based on former inmates’ sonic memories, of the interior architecture of the Saydnaya prison in Syria, where more than 13,000 people have been killed by the Assad regime since 2011. Unfortunately, the live-cast version that Khaldi had imagined—with Abu Hamdan reading his lecture remotely from his studio in Berlin—faltered several times over a bad connection. Though Abu Hamdan tried to pick up where he left off, it became unworkable, which the audience understood reflected the wobbly infrastructure in the West Bank. Metaphors—about the difficulties of communication with Palestine, for instance—resonated. (A recorded video version was later screened for the audience in Ramallah.)

The first full day of programming began with a fascinating but grim session on “subterranean sites” in Palestine. Academic Abdul-Rahim al-Shaikh presented his extensive research on Palestinian graveyards, “I Die, Therefore I Am,” which looked at the “heterotopic” and “heterochronic”—that is, also, metaphoric—qualities of more than 200 burial sites from north to south across occupied Palestine, in order to write a history that circumvents the narrative of Zionism—“a great big rock which you cannot move,” as al-Shaikh described it—that dominates the Palestinian story. He looked at several troubled sites, including Barta’a (near Jenin), where the town and its cemetery are now divided by the Israeli separation fence, and the Maronite Christian village of Kafr Bir’im, near the Lebanese border, where the houses were bulldozed by the Israeli state in 1953 and whose families are only permitted to return to use the remaining church and graveyard. “How can the right of return be achieved through death?” al-Shaikh questioned, explaining how his many examples illustrate that in Palestinian society, “We consider our dead alive here.”

Suhad Daher Nashif talking about the “Cemeteries of Numbers,” where Palestinian bodies are hidden by Israel to prevent them from being returned to their families and celebrated as martyrs.

This sentiment of “I die, then I exist” is the operative concept behind martyrdom, which was neatly picked up in the presentation of another academic, Suhad Daher Nashif. She looked at the “Cemeteries of Numbers,” which are secret graveyards where the Israeli state imprisons bodies of Palestinians killed in attacks on Israelis or who die in Israeli jails, so that they cannot be celebrated as martyrs. These anonymous burial places, Daher Nashif said, are themselves “an archive of attempts to abrogate history of the past,” and that for Palestinians, the return of their bodies is also “a return of sovereignty through martyrdom.” The panel’s respondent Rami Salameh, noted that the presenters had illustrated how in Palestinian society, “death is a collective experience,” not “an individualistic event”—and also part of the heritage of the Nakba. What happens to an individual’s body, in other words, is immediately recognized as a metaphor for fate of the national body.   

Two of the publications (left: Inas Halabi’s Lions Warn of Futures Present; right: The Syllabus by Subversive Film), resting in a tabletop display designed by Elias and Yousef Anastas.

Khaldi’s program for “Shifting Ground” was centered around a series of commissioned publications, each looking at ideas of the earth, territory and the cultural landscape in Palestine. They were displayed at Sakakini, embedded in tables that resembled topographic maps of the landscape, ingenuously designed by Elias and Yousef Anastas, brothers from Bethlehem. In the afternoon session, we heard from three of the artists who produced booklets, each looking at environmental implications of land use and specific sites that became reflections on the history of Palestine. To start with, a video by anthropologist Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins, filmed by Ali Dib, examined two landfills in the West Bank managed by the Palestinian Authority (PA). These projects, Stamatopoulou-Robbins explained in a voice-over, had required planners to imagine a future, and to make projections about demographics—which, for instance, didn’t account for any potential return of Palestinian refugees. But because of the lifestyle changes in Palestine in the last decade—namely, the proliferation of disposable plastic in a new consumerist society—the landfill built by the PA south of Jenin in 2007 was filled within one decade, rather than three. Implicitly, the landfill itself emerged as a pile of metaphors, being buried into the land, in a larger metaphor of unsustainability.

Inas Halabi during her presentation about recording the landscapes of the southern West Bank, where researchers believe highly toxic radioactive waste from Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor has been secretly buried.

While the toxic hazards of landfills are palpable, artist Inas Halabi, in her presentation “Lions Warn of Futures Present,” delved into even more alarming stories about secret chemical-waste burial sites in the landscape outside of Hebron, in the southern West Bank, and not far from Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor. Halabi drew on existing research by Dr. Khalil Thabayneh about extraordinarily high levels of cesium-137—an element that only exists after nuclear fission—in Palestinian and Bedouin areas, which have seen extraordinarily high rates of cancers, tumors and birth defects. Visiting specific locations herself, Halabi put between one and ten sheets of red plastic over the camera’s lens corresponding to the prevalence of cesium, and then filmed the landscape, as a (metaphorical) way of visualizing the un-seeable radiation. Though the details of the sites look ordinary—rocks, small flowers, grasses, a cave in the rocks—the red-tinged video gives the environment a sickly, menacing look. In her publication (a red plastic folder containing five booklets), there are short vignettes of her thoughts, dreams and recounts of talking with residents of Beit al-Roush, which had earned ten sheets of red plastic, corresponding to radiation levels higher than Chernobyl. In the late 1980s, the villagers had seen trucks driven into tunnels that were then walled off by cement, after which rates of various rare cancers had increased dramatically.

A detail of one of Benji Boyadgian’s paintings of the remains of an old aqueduct that carried water into Jerusalem in the Roman era.

Water became the topic in two following presentations: Architectural historian Yara Saqfalhait, in her book and presentation, homed in on the more than 6,000 sinkholes that have appeared around the Dead Sea, which has been drying up ever since Israel diverted water from the Jordan River. Artist Benji Boyadgian then used to the metaphor of a clogged pipe to describe life in Jerusalem, before he displayed drawings he had made of fragments of old water systems from the city’s Roman period, and a video that follows the path of the ancient aqueduct that brought water into the walled city from the Bethlehem area. Moderator Shuruq Harb was agile in balancing questions that touched on the artists’ and researchers’ efforts to navigate the potential of abstraction in art with the grievous realities of the subjects. Boyadgian described trying to find other subjects (or, metaphors) to talk about life in a “clogged city,” while still avoiding the normalization of a high-conflict situation, giving his work more global implications.

At the Ramallah Municipality Theater, Asma’a Azaizeh performs Rabih Mroué’s multimedia monologue Make Me Stop Smoking (2006), which features several humorous collages of Sigmund Freud and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

In the evening, at the Ramallah Municipality Theater, was a version of Lebanese dramatist and artist Rabih Mroué’s monologue performance Make Me Stop Smoking (2006), presented by poet and writer Asma’a Azaizeh. Here the process of translation worked seamlessly, as Azaizeh has presence and a great voice, and she channeled the dark humor of Mroué himself as he considers his own attempts to read meaning or achieve catharsis by examining the past (there are some hilarious visuals, such as those that combine famous photographs of Sigmund Freud with propaganda posters of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah). Afterwards, there was laudatory joking that Azaizeh’s version was better than Mroué’s original, which I’m sure Mroué will be happy to hear. I wasn’t immediately sure what the metaphor was in that, but there must have been one.

HG Masters is editor at large for ArtAsiaPacific.

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