Iraqi-born artist Jananne al-Ani in her latest exhibition attempts to unpick the persistent 19th century “Orientalist” view that she asserts the West maintains of modern day Middle East. With film and installation, she explores the viewpoint seen by drone or satellite as she explores traces of history that can only be seen from the air. “Excavations” is at Hayward Project Space, Southbank Centre, London, until 11 May 2014.
Jananne al-Ani examines “Aesthetics of Disappearance”
For a decade, Jananne al-Ani has found inspiration in the mysterious and intriguing “shadow sites”, glimpses of past human civilisation invisible except in arial photography taken when long shadows are cast in the early morning or evening sun. The photographs reveal human presence had existed at some point in areas long thought to be barren and unpopulated. al-Ani’s on-going project, “The Aesthetics of Disappearance: A Land Without People” points out the “prominent role of digital technology, aerial photography and satellite imagery” which inadvertently exposes the “Orientalist stereotype of the region firmly embedded in the West’s consciousness…that of a desert, a place with no history and no population”, which of course, the images she compiles reveal the opposite of this “blank canvas” portrayed by the media and political rhetoric.
al-Ani showed her work, “Aesthetics of Disappearance” in Sharjah Biennial (2011) during which she gave a talk about her ongoing project. She comments about aerial photography, how it was a big part of military reconnaissance in the 1991 Gulf War and “allowed for all sorts of denial of what’s going on, what’s been allowed to happen“. She continues, “…the distance [from which the arial photos are taken] make what’s going on very abstract, very removed, aestheticised” and as such, “landscape stops being a landscape and becomes purely an abstract surface”.
The beauty of surface and texture revealed in the bird’s eye view of the Earth is captured in al-Ani’s “Groundworks” a mult-channel video installation of three short films projected within a triangle, a circle and a square shape, each film shifting almost imperceptibly in its geometric frame. The slight movement of the image is mesmerising. The visual distance of viewer to the surface abstracts the image so much that in the circular one, I thought I might be looking at a highly-magnified view of microscopic crystals of sand.
In the next room, the “Shadow Sites” film projection takes up an entire wall and as it is a 10,000 foot view of the ground, there begins to be a sensory illusion of the floor moving from underneath your feet. (If you watch long enough, you might feel a bit woozy!) Then I remembered I’d seen this somewhere before, at the 54th Venice Biennale 2011 in the “The Future of a Promise“, a special Pan-Arab exhibition of contemporary art. “Shadow Sites” was as engrossing then as now in my second viewing of it.
In the last room of “Excavations” stands a single plinth built into the top of which is a screen showing a short video entitled “Excavations”. The viewer must stand over the plinth to look down onto the screen – much the same view I would imagine of the original camera angle used to shoot the footage of the colony of ants building their nest. It fascinating to watch the ants scurry about and once you focus on it for a few minutes more, you begin to see the wider implications and meaning. It’s the clarity that comes with the view of something simple and perhaps inconsequential to me, but to the ants at this moment, this displacement of earth is everything.
More links and information
- Jananne al-Ani and “Shadow Sites” at Edge of Arabia
- “Excavations” by Jananne al-Ani, What’s on at Southbank Centre
- Women of the World Festive 2014 at Southbank Centre, London
- LCC Senior Research Fellow Jananne Al-Ani exhibits Excavations at Hayward Gallery, on UAL’s blog.arts.ac.uk
- More about Research Fellow Jananne al-Ani at London College of Communication
- Review of “Shadow Sites – Recent work by Jananne al-Ani” by Michael O’Sullivan in Washington Post (Washington DC) – 7 September 2012
- View/download Jananne al-Ani – Excavations – exhibit guide [PDF]
- Jananne al-Ani discusses her project, ” Aesthetics of Disappearance: A Land with no People” at Sharjah Biennial [Vimeo, 21:42 mins]
- Werner Herzog’s film, “Lessons of Darkness“, 1992 This film shows the disaster of the Kuwaitian oil fields in flames. In contrast to the common documentary film there are no comments and few interviews.
- Sophie Ristelhueber, “Facts of Matter“, 2011. French artist photographed ariel views and close-ups of the Kuwaiti desert 7 months after Desert Storm ended.
Exhibition details: Excavations by Jananne al-Ani is at Hayward Project Space, Southbank Centre, London from 5 March through 11 May 2014. Free admission.