Palestinian artists Ruanne Abou-Rahme and Basel Abbas could not have chosen a better title for their first solo UK exhibition. Upon entering the narrow corridors guiding you through their audio-visual labyrinth, The Zone, you are immediately thrown into the complicated socio-political state of mind Palestine finds itself in. Walking through the New Art Exchange’s quaint reception with the smell of coffee still lingering in your nostrils, around the corner, you are hit by a wave of agonising industrial noise that immediately extinguishes any thoughts of serenity and certainty. The gallery has become The Zone, an ambiguous space encapsulating a nation’s struggle.
As an installation exploring a host of extremely delicate, sometimes personal issues and emotions intrinsically linked to Palestinian history, lifestyle, religion and political struggle, there is a sense of voyeurism that sneaks up on me as I stand in the glow of the first video presented to me. Perhaps, though, this is what the artists are trying, in part, to achieve through displaying their ideas on a series of plasma screens. Being used to seeing foreign political affairs in a televised news context, presenting the facts on a small screen whilst you sit comfortably in a living room, there was something unnerving about watching political footage removed from a factual stance. Focusing on the city of Ramallah, the films consist of cityscapes throughout different seasons, interspersed with contradictory violent and idealistic imagery of soldiers and playing children. Eerily ghost-like, the cityscapes are reminiscent of Michael Wesely’s long exposure photographs, as they depict a city that seems to be trapped within itself, devoid of the normal energy you would expect to find in a cultural capital. Of the piece, Abou-Rahme and Abbas have said it is their aim to showcase the ‘unique social dynamics that have brought about the eruption of a consumerist culture into the Palestinian struggle, amidst an increasingly dystopian environment.’ Exploring ideas of isolation and escapism, the city of Ramallah is seemingly the perfect setting in which to discuss these social and political issues on a national level. Meaning ‘Height of God’, Ramallah was originally a Christian town, today considered as Palestine’s foremost cultural capital and one of the country’s most liberal cities, the desolation and (to a degree) the decay of the city infrastructure as depicted in the films, serves as a powerful metaphor for the ongoing struggle towards normalcy in Palestine. With consumerism and the idea of masking or ‘hiding’ the truth being at the core of this exhibition, contradictory ideas and images form the basis of visually understanding and unraveling the installation.
This technique proves highly effective in relaying the artists’ feelings about the current socio-political situation in their homeland. Filmed from a one-angle perspective, the camera serves as a kind of CCTV view for a spectator to observe the day-to-day happenings in the city. Walking through the dark corridors leading towards the heart of the exhibition, the installation and source of constant industrial and droning audio, you are presented with this same viewpoint at differing times of the day, night and year, the repetition of the image forcing you to inspect it in detail. It is in this detail that you start to see the cracks in the consumerist veneer which Abou-Rahme and Abbas wish to discuss.
Already an unnerving experience with the ghostly nature of the town itself and the sense of political unrest that comes with it, the films become even more arresting when you notice the constant presence of a glowing cross atop a skyscraper. Below this religious iconography, a group of soldiers exercise military formations two streets down from a school playground in which two teams of young children are playing basketball. These two groups of people, apart from the occasional trucks and cars passing through, are the only signs of human presence within the large radius the camera angle covers. This unnatural representation of inner city life brings to the foreground the social issues regarding security and the religious struggle that shrouds Palestinian politics and lifestyle and ironically highlights the exact point the artists wish to raise. With Ramallah hosting its first international film festival in 2004 and being praised for its thriving social scene, the artists’ representation of the town appears to be a deliberate attempt to showcase a problem of denial which could have manifested itself in the psyche of the Palestinian population. On your journey through the exhibition, this point is not only highlighted by the repetition of the screens and their unchanging subject matter, but also by the constant rise and fall of the audio echoing from the room at the heart of the exhibition to which you are being guided.
The relentless repetition and juxtaposition of imagery and sound lure you into a certain state of mind which becomes almost hypnotising, making you forget where you are, forcing you to continue on the only path laid out before you. This, perhaps, is mimicking the entrapment felt by a Palestinian population caught in a religious and political war for as long as it can remember. Consumerism becomes a form of escapism for the people, a way to experience a form of normalcy in their sporadic lifestyles. The American philosopher Noam Chomsky has discussed the idea of ‘Media Monsters’ in several of his books. He argues that the modern Western world has taught itself to believe in the idealism it sells, and hence, the lifestyles portrayed in visual media has become a global strategy used by governments to ensure their people that their personal universes are safe and kept.
This point is made emphatically clear once you enter the main room of the exhibition where you are confronted by two giant projection screens separated by a pillar and a sea of sand sprawled across the floor. The sound you have been listening to on your journey to the room, which had become background noise because of its constant repetition as it drifted out into the corridors, is now almost deafening and you are made aware of it as if for the first time. Playing on Western stereotypes of Palestinian landscape, as portrayed in the media, the sand, combined with the audio, which you can now recognise as helicopter drones and mechanical clanking immediately puts the idea of conflict into your understanding of the piece. On the projection screens, who themselves resemble giant billboards, images of Palestinian propaganda in the form of posters and billboards are displayed. Carrying on the theme of contradiction, one screen has an image of a billboard with a smiling woman, the tagline reading: ‘Your belongings and families are safe!’, whilst on the other a destroyed neighbourhood is displayed.
Emphasising consumerism and propaganda in Palestinian society incites the realisation of similarity in a UK audience. This is unheimlich, too close-to-home. The Zone is not a criticism of a singular nation; it is a description of a social phenomenon to be found beyond Palestinian borders.
By Lara De Jager