Otherwise Occupied: An alternative Palestine in Venice

Sara Elkamel, Thursday 20 Jun 2013

Palestinian visual artist Aissa Deebi, one of the artists exhibiting at a parallel event at the Venice Biennale, tells Ahram Online about his project

The trial
The Trial, video installation by Aissa Deebi. (Photo: courtesy of the artist)

‘Otherwise Occupied’, an exhibition made up of two projects by Palestine-born contemporary artists Aissa Deebi and Bashir Makhoul, runs until 30 June at the 55th Venice Biennale.

Organised by Jerusalem-based art association Al-Hoash, the exhibition is one of 48 unofficial pavilions presented among 88 national pavilions at the international arts festival being held in Venice, Italy.

The two projects – ‘The Trial’ and ‘Giardino Occupato’ (Occupied Garden) – which make up the installation present alternative ways to view Palestine, raising questions about identity, nostalgia, and imagined spaces.

The first project, which takes its name from Franz Kafka’s famous novel, is a re-enactment of a historical text; a speech by Daoud Turki, a Palestinian poet and representative of an Arab-Jewish leftist group dubbed the Red Front, who was tried for treason in Haifa District Court, Palestine, in 1973 and subsequently jailed for 17 years. The Trial is a 15-minute cocktail of mediums; a cross between video art, performance, theatre and film.

Bashir Makhloul's installation, Giardino Occupato, is an occupation of the garden at Liceo Artistico Statale di Venezia, in which visitors and volunteers participate in choreographing a set of buildings using thousands of cardboard boxes. This installation illustrates the performative act of occupation, which essentially entails physically filling a space.

The slightly playful installation of an occupied garden is intended to evoke the dwellings of refugees, and simulated venues where trainings of military personnel for urban fighting are conducted. They also allude to the stereotypical set design used in Hollywood productions or games to represent the typical "Arab village."

Deebi (b.1969) is an artist and a scholar based in Cairo and New York, and Makhoul (b.1963) has been based in the UK for the past 20 years. Both artists have tackled themes of conflict, diaspora and exile in their work, reflecting their Palestinian heritage and their compound identities.

At a café in Cairo, a few days after he returned from Venice, Aissa Deebi talked to Ahram Online about The Trial.

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The Trial, video installation by Aissa Deebi. (Photo: courtesy of the artist)

In Deebi's video installation, actors Saleh Bakri, Amer Helehel, and Hanan Hillo, joined by the artist himself, re-enact a speech read by Daoud Turki in a Haifa courtroom in 1973, in which he makes a case for Arab nationalism.

"I wanted to go back to when utopia was possible in the 1970s," explains Deebi. Back then, an anti-Zionist, Jewish-Arab leftist group led by Turki believed that communism was the answer for peace, and that it was the recipe for “utopia.”

Deebi found it interesting to "revisit this moment in history and bring it back.”

Aesthetically, the artist has constructed the video in a manner evocative of a dream; the characters are engulfed in a dark black room, in solitude. The actors reading the speech are constantly interrupted by the slamming of cups of tea and water –a symbol for torture in prisons- on the table, as if perpetually yanking the audience out of their reveries. The speakers waver in conviction, and appear hesitant and melancholic. The uncertainty that pervades the 15-minute video is a harbinger of the torture, pain, solitude of the trial and ultimately, the failure of the movement.

The artist explains that this was one of the techniques he used to visually portray the idea that the dream of creating a movement of Arab nationalism or communism in the region had never actually been realised.

"I wanted to show that the experience was never complete," says Deebi. "They are constantly interrupted, so by the end of the 15 minutes, the actors do not actually deliver anything."

Filmed using two cameras, the video plays out across two screens; "to show this kind of impossible utopia," he says.

The artist says he read 365 pages of research about this group. "What I thought was striking was that no one listened to them," he said. In an attempt to toy with history, perhaps, Deebi creates a three-minute pinnacle in the video, where two "prisoners" read the speech in unison, and this joint reading becomes unavoidable; you cannot help but listen to it.

“I thought, it would be quite interesting to get you excited for three minutes, then you go back to normal," he explains.

Away from popular images of an occupied Palestine, Deebi provides the audience with an alternative view of the place. In essence, the project tries to reveal the way in which communism had created an ideological space. "The work deals with the idea of utopia," he says. "It tackles a very crucial moment in history, takes a story that was hidden, and opens a new discourse to a new utopia."

The artist shot The Trial, which bears a potent leftist slant, in Palestine, using Palestinian actors. Leftist culture is not a Middle Eastern concept, Deebi says with a smile. But this project is about “how ideology creates new imaginary spaces," he explains.

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The Trial, video installation by Aissa Deebi. (Photo: courtesy of the artist)

The Kafka novel that The Trial takes its name from revolves around a man being tried for an unidentified crime, and prosecuted by an unspecified authority. The narrative is cruel, and seems to proceed in slow motion as the character and the reader feel fear and uncertainty.

While The Trial that Deebi presents is relatively fast paced, merely taking up 15 minutes, it bears similarities to Kafka's trial. Both Deebi’s Turki and Kafka's protagonist, Josef K., had to suffer through circular, seemingly never-ending ordeals.

Another similarity is that Kafka’s novel was an unfinished work, much like Deebi's illegible, incessantly interrupted version of Turki's speech.

While the actions in the video appear calculated and precise, the artist says he wrote no rigid script, and gave the actors the freedom to improvise. "I'm not a filmmaker," he professes. "Filmmaking is totally different from video art, which is done for an exhibition space not for the screen."

Like most of his work, this project is autobiographical. The artist, who has leftist roots and views, decided to use a group with communist ideals, established in Haifa, the town he grew up in, as the subject for the artwork. Deebi says he focused on this group because they "saw the space differently."

For him, living outside of Palestine has been liberating, in that it has allowed him to also, envision the space differently. "Living abroad, you see Palestine outside of Palestinian politics," he explains.

"I felt that maybe, I can look into my Palestinian-ship from a different perspective, if I am free, away," he recalls. "When you don't live there, you see Palestine from a different perspective. It's critical, and it is romantic.”

As an artist born in Palestine, voluntarily uprooted from his home to study, work and teach in the UK, the US, Egypt, Mexico, and Thailand, among others, his artwork has naturally reflected his experienced of being an immigrant. His projects have dealt with feelings of alienation and displacement, as well as his Palestinian identity.

"My work is not only about Palestine, it’s also about my experience, and a large part of my identity is being Palestinian," he says.

Sometimes, the inevitable political undertones that seep through his life and work overwhelm Deebi. "Sometimes, I wish I could just be a landscape painter," Deebi remembers telling a friend. Yet his compound identity is inescapable, and is mirrored in his artwork.

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