Bashir Makhoul
Returning Time
The Political Art of Bashir Makhoul

Only the art itself can discover its possibilities, and the discovery of a new possibility is the discovery of a new medium. A medium is something through which or by means of which something specific gets done or said in particular ways. It provides, one might say, particular ways to get through to someone, to make sense; in art, they are forms, like forms of speech. To discover ways of making sense is always a matter of the relation of an artist to his art, each discovering the other.

~ Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed

Return, the title of Bashir Makhoul’s new show, immediately situates the viewer within a political nexus that ties together Makhoul’s personal return to Israel/Palestine to make the contemporary photographs that are elements of the art works presented here with the politics of return – and, its double, exile -- that is played out within and across the modern history of Israeli-Palestinian relations. These works are political acts that engage both Israel’s founding doctrine of Aliya (return) articulated through the sovereign assertion of the Law of Return and the contemporary Palestinian demand of ‘the right of return’ for those refugees displaced and dispossessed during the founding of Israel. Yet Makhoul’s engagement with these themes is not a subordination of art to politics, the polemical gesture of agitprop; rather, through its focus on the singular history and politics of Israel/Palestine, this exhibition offers a meditation on the relationship of art and politics, on the aesthetic dimension of political agency and on the political role of art.

I

Artistic agency, Kant contended, is expressive in the sense that the artist’s intention is not confirmed by the exemplary performance of the artwork, it is discovered and revealed in and through that performance. More precisely, Kant’s argument is that while artistic agency is rule-governed (it is neither arbitrary nor chaotic), the rule for such activity cannot be codified, that is, stated independently and in advance of the activity itself – in Kant’s words, it cannot have “a concept for its determining ground” – but rather must “be gathered from the performance, i.e., from the product, which others may use to put their own talent to the test, so as to let it serve as a model, not for imitation, but for following.”’ Moreover, since all expressive activity is mediated, it follows that exemplary artistic agency cannot treat the medium of expression as a mere vehicle for the articulation of thoughts, feelings or emotions (this would require that the determinate character of such states could be specified independently and in advance of the activity of working out what they are), rather artistic agency is expression in and through the resources and requirements intrinsic to the medium via which its work is conducted.

In this exhibition, Makhoul deploys large format digitally-manipulated micro-lens photographs as the medium for expressing – clarifying, transforming and individualizing -- the thoughts and feelings that compose his relationship to the topos of return in the contested territory of his birth, where this relationship serves as the site for meditation on the relationship of art and politics. More specifically, Makhoul uses the resources of this medium to superimpose one photograph on another and exploits its requirements in order to structure the viewer’s relationship to these images such that the photographs can be viewed individually but each only from a single spatial point of view; between these discrete limit-standpoints, the viewer encounters an almost kaleidoscopic tableau in which aspects of the photographs are interwoven: a dream-like vista which shifts and transforms with the movement of the viewer.

In the ‘historical’ series of works which superimpose Makhoul’s own contemporary documentary photographs of specific sites in Israel/Palestine (his personal return) with archival photographs from the period of the British Mandate in Palestine, the resources and requirements of Makhoul’s medium allow him to address the topic of return through the expression of both the historicity of the photographs combined in each work and the relationship of past and present represented by these photographs, the way in which they inevitably haunt each other. Thus, Makhoul’s work draws our attention to the way in which the single still documentary photograph acts to repress historical time by occluding the historicity of the actions and events that it represents to the gaze of the viewer. (In this respect, the documentary photograph has an elective affinity with ideologies of return insofar as these are structurally characterized by avoiding any ethical acknowledgment of the relationship of return to the dispossession and exile of the other.) It performs this task through its own act of recovery of what is repressed in the documentary photograph. The digital superimposition of historically separated photographs within the same frame combined with the deployment of micro-lens technology means that the viewer’s movement from the standpoint of discrete visibility of the archive still to the spatial point of view that allows them to view the contemporary image alone is a movement through historical time in which the latter image is tied to the former though the visual interweaving of the two photographs that accompanies the relocation of the viewer’s body, while the almost kaleidoscopic reconfigurations of the patterns of this visual interweaving as the viewer moves stress the radical contingency of the connection between this past and this present, the fateful political fact that it could have been otherwise.

Whereas a digital superimposition of these photographs that did not also use the resources and requirements of micro-lens technology could, in its conjunction of past and present, express only this conjunction and not the relationship or process marked by this conjunction (and hence express only a choice between fatalist resignation or revolutionary invocation), Makhoul is able to express the necessary connection of past and present, the actual connection of this past and this present and the contingency of this actuality. Thus, Makhoul’s work puts into question any simple ideology of return in virtue of both assembling reminders of the actual historical relationship in which the foundation of Israel involved the dispossession and exile of Palestinians, and disrupting ideological attempts to ascribe a teleological rationality or necessity to this contingent historical process.

The preceding remarks focus on the temporal dimension of Makhoul’s work in terms of its representation of the relationship of the past to the present, its insistence on the present as haunted by the spectre of the past and its expression of the political claim that the present cannot divorce itself from its past, despite the (fantastic) desire to do so expressed in ideologies of return. However, to understand the necessity of Makhoul’s medium for his topic (that is, why video, for example, is not adequate to his expressive task), it is vital to see that the power of Makhoul’s medium (in contrast to video) lies in its ability to represent not only the present as irreducibility haunted by its relationship to this past but also, and at the same time, the past as inevitably haunted by its relationship to this present, a representation made manifest in the movement of the viewer from the point of discrete visibility of the contemporary photograph to that of the discrete visibility of the archival still. What Makhoul’s medium allows him to express is, thus, that whereas physical time is unidirectional: the past qua physical events is forever fixed; historical time is a two-way street: the past qua human agency is not fixed, the meanings of our past actions (and hence what actions they are) is not yet fully determined or, put another way, is necessarily affected by our present actions. The intelligibility of this gesture is predicated on generalizing the expressive character of artistic agency to human agency as such (and, in this context, political agency in particular) since it is only as expression that we can understand the past actions of a person, a people or (as in this case) a relationship of peoples as elements of an ongoing performance whose character is not fully determined since the performance is not complete and yet whose character cannot be separated from its relationship to this present. Thus, whereas the encounter with Makhoul’s work as a movement from past to present puts into question ideologies of return that would eradicate traces of an inconvenient and recalcitrant past in order to assert the unconditional legitimacy of (selected aspects of) this present, the encounter with these works as a movement from present to past makes problematic ideologies of return that would eradicate the present in order to valorise (selected aspects of) this past. If Makhoul’s work insists that contemporary Israel must acknowledge the violent displacement and dispossession of the Palestinians that mark its foundation and history, it also insists that the Palestinians acknowledge the ethical and political salience of the foundation and history of the State of Israel by refusing recourse to a political eschatology that imaginatively projects the future elimination (as opposed to transformation) of this State.

These critical moments of Makhoul’s work can be summarised as the rejection of a politics of ideological polemic expressed through one-sided visions of return that try to close down the space of our political imaginations through a bowdlerization (and, hence, falsification) of history. As Michel Foucault notes: The polemicist … proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question. On principle, he possesses rights authorising him to wage war and making that struggle a just undertaking; the person he confronts is not a partner in the search for truth, but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is harmful and whose very existence constitutes a threat. For him, then, the game does not consist of recognising this person as a subject having the right to speak, but of abolishing him as an interlocutor, from any possible dialogue; and his final objective will be, not to come as close as possible to a difficult truth, but to bring about the triumph of the just cause he has been manifestly upholding from the beginning. The polemicist relies on a legitimacy that his adversary is by definition denied. (1984: 382)

Against this mode of politics, Makhoul’s work expresses the attractions of a politics of acknowledgment, of dialogue rather than polemic. In the aesthetic pleasure of the shifting patterns of colour that characterize the interweaving of past and present between the standpoints of discrete visibility of the photographic representations of past and present, Makhoul expresses the political good of a common world, of the political art of constructing commonality through a mutual acknowledgment that seeks to do justice to the shared history of Israel/Palestine. At the same time, the precarious fragility of these shifting patterns of colour expresses Makhoul’s recognition of the difficulty of the art of politics, of realizing the good of a common world.

II

If Makhoul’s ‘historical’ works contest the corruption of consciousness revealed in the bowdlerized historiography of ideologies of return, his ‘spatial’ series of works focus on the concrete articulation of a politics of avoidance in the material construction of the security wall dividing Israel from the West Bank and Gaza. In terms of Makhoul’s use of digitally manipulated mirco-lens photographs, these works further explore the expressive resources of this medium by taking advantage of the fact that not simply two (as in the ‘historical’ works) but multiple photographs can be superimposed on each other yet remain, each from a single spatial standpoint, discrete images in order to separate the images of the Palestinian camp and the Israeli settlement that stand on opposed sides of the wall with an image of the wall itself. In this way, the viewer’s movement in relation to the work gives expression to the spatial relationship of camp-wall-settlement and, in doing so, accentuates for the viewer, the issue of the political character of this spatial relationship as one in which the disjuncture between land and territory is made manifest.

One way of seeing the point of these works is to imagine them without the presence of the separating image of the wall. Such an imagined work would construct a relationship between two dwelling places (camp/settlement) as inhabitations of land - of land as a site of history, memory, belonging – and, in the play of images, between the discrete standpoints of visibility of camp and settlement would express the attractions of acknowledging a common relationship to the land, to the symbolic significance of this earth, this stone, this tree, as a basis for mutual engagement. However, by inserting the image of the wall itself so that it separates images of camp and settlement, and disrupts any direct relationship between the two, Makhoul turns us from a reflection on land to one on territory, that is, the wall as juridical divider, as determining inside and outside, friend and foe, identity and alterity. More specifically, Makhoul’s work directs us to the politics of the territorialisation of land and, so, once again, to costs of an ideological politics of return cast in the polemical form of the assertion of sovereignty, of the unconditional right to occupy land through the sovereign delimitation of territorial space. The wall – as the material expression of such sovereign delimitation – thus denotes a refusal of dialogue, a claim to absolute dominion.

And yet the hubris of any such absolutist claim is manifest in the landscapes that Makhoul assembles. In the images of camp and of settlement, there are, to be discerned, the traces of past dwellings and of previous territorializations; even in the images of the wall, one can see a line of sky. Land survives –and exceeds -- its territorialization; it remains a repository of memory and of possibility.

It should be noted that it is precisely through taking the case of Israel/Palestine as an exemplar in these works that Makhoul’s art problematizes the globalization of world political order in terms of, what we can call, the sovereign territorial ideal. Precisely as the historical site that it is, the land that Makhoul photographs reminds us that this form of highly territorialized political ordering of humanity through its division into the populations of sovereign states is itself a relatively recent political artefact, and that it too can be taken as an object of political appraisal and evaluation. In drawing to our attention both the costs of this way of governing human beings, its inbuilt tendency to generate territorial conflicts over land, and – crucially -- its artefactual character, Makhoul’s work places the viewer in the position of the critic confronted with a specific possible instance of the art of government. This is to say that Makhoul’s ‘spatial’ works do not insist on an alternate principle of political space or rule but invite us to remind ourselves that the sovereign territorial state is a political work of art and to reflect critically on the value of that work in engaging our own political imaginations.

III

Art, the philosopher R.G. Collingwood argued, is the community’s medicine for the worst disease of mind: the corruption of consciousness, a condition characterized by motivated failures of self-knowledge. When and where this condition takes the form of the corruption of political consciousness through, say, a politics of ideological polemic, what is required is a political art that critically engages this condition and attempts to return its viewers to the more complex and difficult task of achieving – individually and collectively – self-knowledge. Such a political art is realized in the works of Return in which Makhoul’s own quest for self-knowledge exemplifies such a process of critical engagement, a process through which Makhoul discovers where he stands politically in relation the politics of return in Israel/Palestine and, indeed, the contemporary order of global politics. As an exemplification of this process, Makhoul’s work does not demand our agreement, rather it challenges us to move beyond a polemical ideological terrain in which our individuality is subsumed, and obscured, by treating one’s thoughts and feelings as simple products of one’s ‘national’ (i.e., ethnocultural or state-based) identity and so leaving one able to see oneself only as a certain type of self defined by one’s possession of a given ‘national’ identity. This is one of the main senses in which Makhoul’s work serves, in Kant’s words, ‘as a model, not for imitation, but for following.’

Yet it is not simply as an enactment of the political role of art that Return engages the viewer or, rather, it is able to perform this political role only because it also reminds us that politics is itself a form of artistic activity, that exemplary political agency is expressive and, hence, that the reason that ideological polemic represents the corruption of political consciousness is that it treats the medium of political activity as if it were a mere vehicle for thoughts and feelings that are taken to be complete independently and in advance of the process of working out what they are. This is to say that ideological agency fails to be genuine political agency because its adopts an instrumental relationship to politics, engaging it not as the field in which one works out the character of one’s political identity but, rather, as merely the means to realize ends determined by a ‘national’ identity (for example, an ethnocultural identity) that is seen as independent of the activity of politics itself. Such a subordination of one’s political identity to a given, fixed, ‘national’ identity entails that one remains politically obscure to oneself.

If, in the works of Return, Makhoul offers us not only a political art but also a reflection on the relationship of art and politics, it consists in this recognition that artistic agency can only be political in so far as it acknowledges the irreducibly artistic character of political agency. Or, to put it negatively, political art can only succeed in being such in so far as it neither subordinates art to politics (i.e., adopts an politically instrumental approach to art and thus fails to be artistic agency) nor subordinates politics to art (i.e., adopts an artistically instrumental approach to politics and thus fails to be political agency). It is a measure of Makhoul’s achievement that his work succeeds as both artistic and political agency.

David Owen

Winchester 2007
David Owen is Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at the University of Southampton. He has published nine books of which the most recent are Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality (Acumen, 2007) and, as co-editor, Recognition and Power (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and Multiculturalism and Political Theory (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

Ridley, 2004: 9

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