• Issue
  • Nov 01, 2021

Vitry-sur-Seine: Taysir Batniji

Taysir Batniji: “Quelques bribes arrachées au vide qui se creuse”
Musée d’Art Contemporain du Val-de-Marne, Vitry-sur-Seine

TAYSIR BATNIJI, Me 2, 2003, still from video with sound: 2 min 9 sec. Courtesy the artist; Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut/Hamburg; and Galerie Eric Dupont, Paris.

When Palestinian artist Taysir Batniji’s first museum retrospective in France opened in June at the Musée d’Art Contemporain du Val-de-Marne, his native Gaza was being bombarded by the Israel Defense Forces, while residents of the East Jerusalem neighborhood Sheikh Jarrah faced forced expulsions. This context is crucial for grasping Batniji’s practice, which centers Palestinian identity in its individual and collective forms. Since the late 1990s, his practice has oscillated between the recording of his own experience as an artist moving around Europe before settling in Paris, and the evocation of situations all too familiar to Palestinians— from survival under siege to the wait at checkpoints and borders. Eschewing a purely documentary approach and questioning representation both in its political and aesthetic senses, Batniji’s photography, films, and installations evoke his subjects through the subtle but indelible traces—material, sonic, or affective—that such ordeals imprint.

The condition of displacement and representational concern of mark-making were at the heart of the survey. Its title, “Quelques bribes arrachées au vide qui se creuse” (A few scraps wrested from the void that grows), was taken from French author Georges Perec’s book Species of Spaces (1974), in which the sentence referred to writing, or the “wresting” of meaning from one’s foggy thought. Applying the quote to Batniji’s work played on its resonance with the feeling of uprootedness and longing that defines exile.

Perec’s quote also evokes gestures—the tearing of a page, scratching of a surface, or erasure of a layer—that punctuate Batniji’s work, as manifested by Traces #2 (2015). In this series, ocher smudges are painted on the corners of white sheets. Replicating the traces left by adhesive tape, these brushstrokes outline an absence. Facing them were hyperrealist, almost cartoonish, watercolors from the series Untitled (Delayed Reality) (2015– ), depicting a variety of scenes—a hand brandishing a shoe, a man spreading his arms—likely copied from news footage. Each illustrates a close-up or truncated view, implying a partial and decontextualized record of its subject. Although Batniji is best known for his documentary work, these series suggest that he is more interested in the failures of representation.

Likewise, To My Brother (2012–20) addresses the trouble of representing the disappeared. Dedicated to the artist’s brother Mayssara, who was killed in 1987 during the first Intifada, these engravings seem blank, but a closer look reveals a constellation of dots delineating the contours of various figures: each work replicates a photo from Mayssara’s wedding album, yet doesn’t render the image fully visible. This juxtaposition anchored Batniji’s work in what art historian Rosalind Krauss named “the photographic,” the physical imprint—of light, or of a tool—on a surface, but added an intimately tragic dimension.

Of Batniji’s oeuvre, his photographs and videos remain the most widely exhibited. Accordingly, videos occupied the center of the exhibition, including the exhilarating and succinct Me 2 (2003), in which the artist films himself spinning to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” (1978). Seemingly frivolous, this artwork took on its full meaning once the visitor encountered Background Noise in the parallel room. Shot in 2007, the video frames the artist’s face as he keeps himself from blinking to the sound of aerial bombings by Israeli forces on Gaza. Poignant in its simplicity, Background Noise played while the sound from Me 2 bled into the room, as if the song were a response to the violence endured by Gazans.

Throughout his plastic experimentations and geographical displacements, Batniji has continually investigated representation and its impossibility. It is, then, not surprising that the referential aspect of his work extends from Perec to Mona Hatoum in the wooden beam Posture (GH0809) (2011), the top of which is jabbed with crooked nails; or to Joseph Kosuth in the juxtaposition of a damaged Formica table-top and its nebulous photographic reproduction in Tabula Ghaza (2005–14). Summoning conceptual art, Batniji confronts the thing with its simulacra. Perec’s influence, however, remained the most prominent: the exhibition ended with No Condition is Permanent (2014–21), a stack of soaps inscribed with the work’s title. The visitor was invited to take a soap—perhaps to wrest something from the void.