In ‘The Sick Man of Europe’, Israeli-Palestinian artist Dor Guez blends folk-tales and found histories to explore identity and memory in an attempt to subvert the meta-narratives of people and nations. Guez combines film and archival installations of drawings, found articles, and photography in the Upper Gallery at the Institute of Contemporary Art [ICA], London. Ends 12 April 2015.
“Written history is an outline of what is not written…”
Dor Guez appropriates the title of his current show from a phrase first attributed to Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, who in mid-1800s in official letters, is said to have referred to the Ottoman Empire as “the Sick Man of Europe”, having lost much territory and power in a series of wars, to be increasingly subjugated by Russia, France, and England. For Jerusalem-born Guez, the framing of history that is not written is key, and crucially, “a part of the traditional role of the artist…to evoke questions, to try and deal with reality“.
Now showing at the ICA until 12 April, in his first UK institutional solo exhibition, “The Sick Man of Europe”, Guez seeks answers to questions of identity, self-definition, and “meta-narratives and how we [artists] disturb these narratives.” For Guez is not just Israeli, he is also Palestinian, also Jewish-Christian, born of Tunisian-Jewish and Christian-Palestinian ancestry. (“Also…” is often emphasised by Guez himself when speaking of his own work, such as in his conversation with Simon Grant, 4 February 2015). These “alsos” are among the many nuanced details to keep in mind when viewing Guez’s artwork, which repeatedly skirts the margin where “…two different cultures meet and what is the outcome of this meeting point”.
“The Painter” is the first of five planned artworks in the series, “The Sick Man of Europe“. In the three rooms of the Upper Gallery at the ICA, “The Painter” includes two films and an archival installation of found items comprised of photos, drawings, paintings, books, other paraphernalia/found objects in several large vitrines. The immersive installation of books and papers in the first space has the feel of weighty history, a density one might experience in a museum setting. A few minutes to become familiar with the contents here is all a viewer might need before proceeding to the videos; the first, in an alcove with a TV monitor and headphones, is over an hour long and sounds like an interview between an older and a younger man, perhaps the older man sharing wisdom through personal history.
“The task of the minorities is to create opposition to meta-narratives”
The longer video adds another satisfying element to the installation of vitrine cases, though, for me, it was the second of the two videos, 20 minutes long, that gives shape to the overall narrative proposed by Guez. The film starts with a man’s voice (Hebrew with English subtitles, as with the headphones piece) telling a folk-tale about a ladybug that falls in love with and marries a mouse, two very different creatures from two very different places. The film then moves into the story of D. Guez, a painter who falls in love with and marries the “wrong” woman not of his culture, before he is conscripted into the IDF [Israeli Defence Force]. During his service, D. Guez is affected by PTSD severely enough to be relieved of his military duties and receive psychotherapy, before he is able to realise his dream to be a painter. The tale moves back to end of the mouse/beetle love story, which also ends the film.
Throughout this short film, I found myself asking questions: who is telling the story? Who is D. Guez, the subject of the film? As he was a soldier in the IDF in the early 70s, he’s certainly not the same Dor Guez only born in the 80s. So is it a relative? (I guessed perhaps D. Guez is Dor Guez’s father). Guez (the artist) admits only to the fascinating coincidence of the same surname, but no relation. What does the mouse story have to do with “The Painter” of the film, other than the tantalising similarity between the artist’s own Jewish-Israeli-Palestinian-Christian ancestry and the insect-rodent folk-tale?
I watched “The Painter” twice in a row before going back to have a more in-depth look at the vitrines, both works informing each other, and together really crystallising the idea that when it comes to the personal or the collective, that which we create is a major part of one’s identity, as much as what we think we know.
Simply put, “The Painter” is a beautifully orchestrated piece of story-telling, using found histories in archival photographs along with someone’s memory to tell a universal truth: no matter how different we are, or where we come from, we are yearning to find sameness, we all seek belonging, and we may even hurt ourselves to belong. Nonetheless, as artists, soldiers, citizens, or lovers, we have the power to create our own story and in doing so, can “create opposition to the meta-narratives” often thrust upon us by our own community or nation. In other words, Guez may be suggesting, though history is written before us, each of us has the ability, perhaps the duty, to make our own stories.
About Dor Guez
Born in Jerusalem and based in Tel-Aviv/Jaffa, Dor Guez is a Lecturer on Archives and Orientalism in the History and Theory Department at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Jerusalem. In his art practice, Guez works primarily with photography and video. He is also the founder and director of the Christian Palestinian Archive [CPA], a digitised collection of photographs, maps, postcards, and other documents dedicated to the Christian Palestinian minority in the Middle East. Started in 2009, the CPA is not considered an “art project”; rather, it functions primarily as a research platform for the history and culture of the Christian-Palestinian diaspora, an archive utilised by artists as well as social scientists, architects, curators, and other scholars.
More links and information about Dor Guez and ‘The Sick Man of Europe’
- Visit ‘Dor Guez: The Sick Man of Europe‘ at the ICA, London
- See more work by Dor Guez on his official website
- Read ‘Marginalised Identities: An Interview with Artist Dor Guez’ by Thomas Storey for TheCulturetrip.com – 2013
- View/download ‘Dor Guez: The Sick Man of Europe’ educator’s resource pack from the ICA [PDF] – designed for GCSE/A-Levels, also suitable for other age groups up to adult/university
- Learn more about The Christian Palestinian Archive project, founded by Dor Guez in 2009.
- Another intriguing film by Dor Guez, “Watermelons under the bed“ – 2011, YouTube, 8:05. Guez explores watermelons and “sabaa” (native cactus fruit) as “Israeli” summer traditions, which also existed in Palestinian culture long before 1948.
- Review: “Dor Guez – A New Israeli History” by Kamil McClelland for Felix Online – 7 February 2015 – “…art always gives such a unique viewpoint of a situation … to unearth the hidden narrative behind a façade. Never has this been more true than with Guez.”
Exhibition details: ‘Dor Guez: The Sick Man of Europe‘ is on in the Upper Gallery at the ICA, The Mall, London, SW1Y 5AH from 3 February–12 April 2015. Paid admission (£1 for day-pass to the ICA), step-free access.
Artist’s talk: Dor Guez in conversation with Simon Grant
Wednesday 4 February, 6:30pm
Gallery tour with View Festival: Dor Guez led by Juliette Desorgues
Friday 27 February, 5pm
Gallery tour: Dor Guez led by Astrid Schmetterling
Thursday 26 March, 6:30pm
TEXT2SPEECH: Reading Group – “The Sick Man of Europe”
Wednesday 1 April, 6:30PM, “The Snug” ICA Bar
“…friendly and informal facilitated reading group that aims to provide a platform for broad discussion around recent contemporary art theory”
Panel discussion at The Mosaic Rooms
Wednesday 8 April, 7pm
A panel discussion around the themes in Dor Guez’ exhibition The Sick Man of Europe
Artist film screening: Dor Guez
Saturday 11 April, 2pm