Bashir Makhoul
Return in Conflict
Exhibition 2008
Otherwise Occupiedis

The literate world would waste a lot of its time if every book written started with an injunction to the reader to read it. And yet I must deliver here exactly that. For this is a book which is in large part about works of art whose visual nature simply cannot be conveyed in conventional reproduction. In modern times, we are accustomed to this in the case of film and video, but the pitfall here is that reproductions of Bashir Makhoul's recent microlens works look as if they might tell their own full story. But if you have not seen the originals, at the very least you need to read the discussion on the following pages to grasp the subtleties of the visual mechanisms at work. Microlens is a common enough phenomenon today, the tiny prismic stripes in the glazing of pictures which yield a degree of animation in response to shifts in the viewer's own position. But seldom is this beguilingly simple technology harnessed to encompass or traverse large gulfs of time, much less to straddle irreconcilable cultural differences and the physical distances by which they are represented on the map. Yet this is what Makhoul has done. This is what this book is about: the juxtaposition, and ultimately the conflation, of old and new, near and far, familiar and strange, soft-edged and graphic. The use of these methods as research tools with which to attempt to pin down one's identity and place in the world might sound less than subtle. But the surprise of this project, the pressing reason to read on, and if possible to seek out the real objects, is that the visual results are best described in altogether softer language: they are moving, gentle, charming. Delightful.

There is always a broader context. And they do not come much broader than the arena of global geo-politics into which Makhoul has knowingly propelled his work. David Owen's chapter in this book examines the work within exactly this context and from a political perspective. Gordon Hon's chapter takes its view from within the world of contemporary art.

But for the gallery curator, for me as curator of this project, the most useful context in which to view any contemporary art is often the artist's other work. Among the questions one most frequently hears asked by gallery visitors of an artist speaking about an exhibition are What were you doing before this? and What are you doing now? I am grateful that this publication affords us the space to present the core works of the Return project alongside images not only from the earlier series Hold, but also from a brand-new, experimental body of work being produced even as I write. I am particularly grateful to the Director and Curators of the spectacularly spacious Chenzen Museum for giving us the opportunity to match the range of this book with a full survey exhibition of the works in question, a retrospective from 1999 onwards, in effect, but one which includes absolutely the most recent outcomes of an ongoing research effort. By the end of the project, the works will also have been seen also in Shanghai, Beijing and Israel.

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Professor Bashir Makhoul is Palestinian and has been based in the UK for the past 16 years. I first saw his work in the early 1990s when he had been practising as an artist in the UK for only a few years. The paintings he was showing at that time conspicuously and uniquely combined the distinctly western, bold, flag-like frontality which Abstract Expressionism and Pop in their turns had laid claim to, with the arabesque patterns of the east, then still largely regarded as something darkly mysterious, at least in the UK. His portfolio back then already also included free-standing objects, and gave a clear indication of his readiness to view any and every medium as a possible tool with which to address the issues that concerned him. Since then indeed, his visual practice has encompassed painting, installation, film, video and digital photographic work and has addressed issues of racial and family identity, location and territorial ownership, social exclusion and displacement, nationalism and war. He has exhibited widely in Britain and internationally and built a solid reputation for his fearless visual confrontation of modern society's most challenging questions. He became Head of Winchester School of Art in 2005.

In 2004, Makhoul researched a collection of archive photographs of Palestine during the period of the British Mandate, and made a selection of images of key locations. He has since taken new digital photographs of the same locations in modern Israel. (The British Mandate refers to the assignment of Britain as the mandatory power by the League of Nations on 25 April 1920, following British occupation of the region at the end of the war in 1918. Britain terminated its mandate on 15 May 1948, and the state of Israel was proclaimed on the following day.)

The works he has made as a result of this research present combinations of the archive photographs with their recent digital equivalents. The software used to prepare them can combine more than a dozen images in the same print. Lenticular glazing, the prismatic acrylic sheet bonded to the surface of the print, then reveals each image in turn as the viewer's position shifts. Additionally, the modern photographs have been digitally manipulated to restore a memory of the state documented in the old ones. In some cases, presentation of multiple copies of the same composite panels further complicate the dynamic possibilities of the work.

The core project addresses the contentious and pressing contemporary issue of return, in relation to Israeli and Palestinian politics and culture. The works seek to highlight the layered nature of social and political meaning and assumption implicit in photographic documentation. Old and new images occupy the same frame, to be seen individually only from one point of view, a powerful metaphor for conflicting fixed perceptions in a fraught geopolitical reality.

The most recent works, the current project at time of writing, widen the geographical scope to include locations in China, where Makhoul has travelled widely. Flag imagery and arabesque graphics reminiscent of his much earlier paintings have also crept into the microlens mix. These works then very directly confront matters of current and long-running controversy. But they are more art than politics, and are steeped in a haunting nostalgia and a touching universal sense of both human frailty and resilience. David Owen, even in the context of a robust philosophical analysis, describes the works as "a dream-like vista which shifts and transforms".

David Owen is Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at the University of Southampton. Broadly, his academic interests are the problems of political community, the ethics and politics of migration, theories of power and freedom, and issues surrounding asylum seekers and refugees. Given this, it is perhaps entirely understandable that the work of Bashir Makhoul would have caught his eye and the issues it addresses struck a clear chord with him. The chapter Owen has contributed to this book is a rare example of a thoroughly argued and properly external view of a contemporary artist's practice. In this it serves as a helpful guide to how we may view Makhoul's work in particular, but also in effect outlines a framework within which contemporary art may meaningfully be applied to the context of the often frustrating complexities of modern geo-political upheaval.

ordon Hon is a practising artist and a Fine Art lecturer at Winchester School of Art concerned with strategic visual art practice and the psychological dimensions of creative motivation. Whilst Owen's chapter looks closely at the temporal issues surrounding the idea of return, Hon's focuses more on its spatial aspects, the space which the microlens introduces into Makhoul's work, and the spaces produced by territorial occupation. He deals with what he sees as the spectral nature of Makhoul's work, placing it in the context of Palestinian narratives of return, and addressing the spectral nature of the idea of return, with all its implications for thinking otherwise about identity and conflict.

I am grateful to both authors for the significant commitment of time and thought they have given to our project.

Initial research for the microlens project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board, and realisation of the works was supported by a Grants for The Arts Award from Arts Council England. On behalf of the artist, I wish to record our gratitude to these agencies for making the project possible. I would also like to thank Aissa Deebi and Rui Yang for their tireless service as technical assistants on the project, and Annie Lu, who in her crucial role as administrative manager, chief diplomat and interpreter, has steered the international aspects of the enterprise faultlessly.

Finally, I wish to thank Professor Makhoul himself, whose contribution to the success of this ambitious project has gone far beyond what is normally required of the artist at the centre of a solo enterprise of this kind. He has created an entirely new body of work, has provided unflagging assistance in the research of existing pieces, has made his extensive overseas contacts available to us, and, above all, provided the leadership to place this project at the heart of a dynamic research strategy with the potential to alter what contemporary art can achieve.

John Gillett
Project Curator
Winchester, September 2007

John Gillett is a practising digital media artist and has been Director of The Winchester Gallery since 1985. The gallery specialises in contemporary international photography and new media.

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