Fragmented Forms: A Review of Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme at the Art Institute of Chicago


Installation view of ‘If Only This Mountain Between Us Could Be Turned to Dust’, 2021 / Image: Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Passing the lobby of the modern wing, up to the second floor, and through the design galleries, you will hear the exhibition of Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, “If only this mountain between us could be reduced to dust” pulsing through the air before seeing it. Organized by Maite Borjabad López-Pastor, this is the first exhibition of Abbas and Abu-Rahme’s work in a major museum in the United States, and one of (if not the) first of all Palestinian artists. Based in Ramallah and New York, Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s collaborative practice is based on sampling. They use existing and self-written writings, video footage, objects and sound recordings to create new imaginaries that counteract the narratives and representations that circumscribe Palestinian life.

The heart of the exhibition is made up of two three-channel video installations: “Oh shining star witness” (2019-21) and “To those terrifying frontiers where the existence and disappearance of people merge into one. other ”(2019-21). “Oh Shining Star Witness” centers on the story of Yusuf Shawamreh, a 14-year-old boy killed by Israeli forces in 2014 while searching his family’s annexed land in the West Bank. Using images of native Palestinian plants and images found associated with the recording of the artist’s song, the work overlays the image and sound on Israeli military surveillance footage released after Shawamreh’s death.

“At these terrifying borders”, in turn, takes its title and text from “After the Last Sky” by Edward Said, the Palestinian researcher’s poetic meditation on Palestinian life, in particular the conditions of exile and displacement. . The lines of the book intersect with composite avatars created by Abbas and Abu-Rahme from images of Palestinian protesters during the Great March of Return, weekly protests for the right of return of Palestinian refugees that began in Gaza in 2018. As avatars create a meeting space for artists and protesters, separated by occupation geography, places where rendering software encountered incomplete visual data appear as scars or cracks on avatars , indicating the potential violence of algorithmic visibility.

View of the installation of “If Only This Mountain Between Us Could Be Turned To Dust,” 2021 / Image: Art Institute of Chicago.

The works are projected onto the four walls of the gallery space, three of which are interrupted by sheets of plywood of different sizes that break up the projected image, and the projections on each wall frequently diverge from each other as they show different channels. The choice of installation here adds another layer of depth and fracture to the already layered video works. This presentation forces the viewer to abandon the complete capture of each work as a whole and instead live an experience of fragmentation.

Before entering the video space, our underestimation of the politics of presentation in play is framed by a textual installation which joins a series of prints entitled “Do not read poetics in these lines” (2010-21) , with a work commissioned by the Art Institute, “Formerly an Artist, Now Just a Tool” (2021). “Do not read poetics in these lines” is taken from the archives collected by the artists of tweets responding to the Arab revolutions, which they selectively erase in new poetic forms. Taken out of these fragmented tweets, the vinyl text of “Once an artist, now just a tool” addresses the violent conditions that shape Euro-American museums and highlights the exhibition of Abbas and Abu-Rahme within them. With its direct speech, “Once an artist, now just a tool” reinforces the auto / institutional criticism conveyed by the work of Barbara Kruger and “Is the Museum a Battlefield? in the neighboring galleries.

Overall, the exhibition challenges viewers to live in the conditions of disjunction that permeate Palestinian life under occupation and displacement, and dares to assert that these works, made up of fractured parts, can operate beyond mainstream stories. and dominant narratives that facilitate Palestinian erasure. Fundamentally, the works presented are themselves perpetually incomplete and in progress; As part of Abbad and Abou-Rahme’s practice, these works will continue to evolve and grow long after they leave the galleries of the Art Institute. (Sarah Dwider)

“If only this mountain between us could be reduced to dust,” Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan, until January 3, 2022.


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