Exhibition invitation for “International Art Exhibition for Palestine,” Beirut, 1978. Courtesy Mona Saudi. 

Past Disquiet

Palestine Spain
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

The Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) recently held “Past Disquiet – Narratives and Ghosts from the International Art Exhibition for Palestine, 1978,” a show inspired by the exhibition referenced in its title. The 1978 show, organized in Beirut by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in solidarity with the Palestinian people, featured works by 200 artists from nearly 30 countries and remains the largest single exhibition to be held in the Arab world. With little remaining of the 1978 event (its archive was destroyed in the 1982 Israeli invasion of Beirut), curators of “Past Disquiet,” Rasha Salti and Kristine Khouri, used a rare copy of the Palestinian exhibition’s catalog as a starting point to recover recorded conversations and pages from discontinued publications that refer to the show, speak with witnesses and sketch connections between Rabat (Morocco), Santiago (Chile), Paris and Beirut. “Past Disquiet” was an intelligent diagnosis of how solidarity rapidly spread across the globe between the 1960s and ’80s.

The “International Art Exhibition for Palestine” was inspired by the International Resistance Museum for Salvador Allende (IRMSA), reestablished abroad by exiled Chilean artists in Paris after a military coup d’état in 1973 ousted the then-president of Chile, after whom the institution is named. Those involved in the coordination of the museum went on to work on the Palestine exhibition in Beirut, as well as “Art for the People of Nicaragua” (which opened in Managua in 1980) and “Artists of the World Against Apartheid” (featuring activists based in 1980s France). By displaying materials related to these various solidarity museums, exhibitions and collectives, “Past Disquiet” posed a question about resistance that still frames art debates today: should intellectuals revolutionize, or should they stand as allies of the revolution? In a video interview displayed among the IRMSA materials, Argentine novelist Julio Cortázar claims: “A work does not need to have ‘revolutionary’ content. The revolutionary work procures the revolution by performing a fracturing of language.”

Did the curators perform a fracturing of language with “Past Disquiet”? Their strategies of display, as represented in an untitled video in the exhibition, were inspired by cartography as an archival method. The footage shows the two curators’ hands drawing circles around the aforementioned solidarity museums and exhibitions, connecting them to one another as well as to related pamphlets, films, artworks, artists and magazines that were also displayed at MACBA. Meanwhile, memories of the artists involved in the Palestine exhibition took form as flickering projections on a wall. Magazines (such as the “linguistic guerrilla” pro-Palestinian magazine Souffles, published in Rabat and subsequently banned in 1972) were printed on canvas and hung from the ceiling, posters were presented as vinyl stickers and photographs were shown as photocopies. This fracturing of the authority of the original archive recalls the methods of Latin American research collective Red Conceptualismos del Sur (or, the Southern Conceptualisms Network), who have been “rewriting” the history of conceptual art by recreating such archives in Latin America that were similarly erased by military dictatorships and colonial violence.

Unfortunately, “Past Disquiet” did little to dissect the wide rationalization of solidarity, and its transformation into a mediatized discourse of human rights of the 1980s and ’90s—a change that created a distance between the artist-activists/intellectuals and the voiceless “victims” for whom they were theoretically advocating. The total absence of current voices from Palestine itself weighed heavily on the display at MACBA. That there is no mention in the curatorial text of the colonial violence that the territory continues to endure provoked the question of whether or not this exhibition was in solidarity with present-day Palestine. Due to the lack of a clear answer, the MACBA archive remained nostalgic and even doomed to make an eternal return to Paris 1968—when images of student uprisings, European Maoism and macho militants began to eclipse other, more marginalized revolutions (such as the Algerian Independence in 1962 and India’s socialist-feminist struggle, among others).

It is a shame that every archive, by necessity, leaves something out. However, at a time when the discursive, territorial interventions of the global supra-structures (such as the United Nations and the European Union) are erasing the memory of alternative post-national politics, Salti and Khouri’s proposal to recover past imaginings was an important one.