Long ago, and not true anyway
In an unassuming shop front gallery in East London, nestled amongst convenience stores, boarded up commercial units and social housing, one will find Long ago, and not true anyway (5th September – 26th October 2013), a group exhibition at Waterside Contemporary. The gallery space's location in Hackney – one of London's most ethnically diverse boroughs – informs the context of the exhibition. As the exhibition materials state, five artists and artist collectives – Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Rabih Mroué, Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson, Mekhitar Garabedian and Slavs and Tatars – have been brought together to ruminate on the 're-assembling of historical narratives affected by migrations, invasions [and] economic interactions…'
Collectively the works probe the space between fact and fiction, national narratives and personal histories. Slavs and Tatars' Triangulation (Not Kaliningrad Not Kerbala) (2011) proposes an antagonistic, negative space in response to the affirmative act of naming a country or a city. Meanwhile, Mekhitar Garabedian's MG (2006), and Gentbrugge (1998-2009) constitute an archive of a personal struggle with identification and assimilation.
The exhibition begins with the crudely painted words 'Your country doesn't exist', visible from outside the gallery. This three-part collaboration between the artists Libia Castro and Ólafur Ólafsson titled Your Country Doesn't Exist – Do It Yourself (UK) (2013) consists of pen and paint on canvas, and two photographs of the painting's creator – the Ambassador of Iceland to the UK – at work in the Icelandic countryside, as well as a text that describes the project. The third constituent Your Country Doesn't Exist (copper stamp) (2013) is propped upon a plinth: an almost obsolete device that simultaneously reminds one of trivial pursuits, and the bureaucratic apparatus of national embassies and migration. The artist's 'campaign', which has been shown in many countries so far, seeks to highlight the inherent uncertainties at the heart of diplomatic relations and amorphous power balances, which are part and parcel of shifting international economic and social frontiers. This is, ostensibly, a novel way of interrogating questions of power and diplomacy – the hidden operators who are outside of law and country.
Moving then, from a work that expounds a contested country to one concerned with a forgotten history, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige present The Lebanese Rocket Society: A Carpet (2013). This multimedia installation is anchored around a giant carpet with the Lebanese Rocket Society stamp emblazoned on it; an image that the artists found while leafing through a book, and which launched their tireless quest to find the origins of the stamp. The project, which has been realised as a film, lecture-performance and sculpture, brings together two narratives: the research-led Rocket Society programme headed up at the Armenian Haigazian University in Beirut, Lebanon, in the 1960s, and the gifting of a woven rug to US President Calvin Coolidge by children from an orphanage in Lebanon in the mid-20s. These two chronicles, each converged upon an enigmatic object – a rug and a rocket – speak volumes of the role of both international politics and personal anecdotes in the formation of a cultural and national consciousness.
Rabih Mroué's video Shooting Images (2012), takes an event from the ongoing conflict in Syria, via a video the artist found posted on YouTube of a man filming a sniper on his camera phone before seemingly becoming the gunman's victim. Reconstructing this encounter through still images, video and text, the slideshow deconstructs a short exchange that was viewed by many around the world, thus begging the question: 'How can we make such victims visible?' The language of theatre, Mroué's medium, is present throughout, with the textual elements acting as asides or stage directions, and Mroué clearly views this event asan analogy for not only the Syrian conflict, but conflict more generally. The video unpicks the creation and dissemination of images, particularly those we receive through journalistic channels and probes each aspect: who was the sniper? (In this case, he was Mroué's friend Sarmad, a cameraman who set up the camera before climbing to a rooftop and aiming a fake gun at the lens). It also asks: 'Is it possible to see the face of the victim reflected on the surface of the killer's eyes?' as the screen zooms into see if one can. Setting up a false economy of victim and killer (they are but one), Mroué poetically aims to refute the dichotomy of 'us and them' – rebel and loyalist, immigrant and native.
As an experience, the exhibition captured a sense of atomisation and displacement – both conditions of contemporary, globalised societies. It found its voice in between official, national histories and personal, anecdotal mythologies. The notion of the individual and the national, as the press release explains, are performed throughout the exhibition to demonstrate the role played by both conflict and migration in the emergence of detached communities in an era where multiculturalism has essentially failed. And yet, the exhibition takes narratives that, while feeding into this discourse, do not describe the specifics of the United Kingdom, from where the language of failed multiculturalism originates and continues to resonate. Rather, it seems enough to say that the language of contemporary art transcends these boundaries and brings together locales as disparate as Kalingrad, Kerbala, Iceland, Beirut, Washington DC, Syria, Gentbrugge and Armenia. Setting aside the literary inflections of the title Long ago, and not true anyway, the exhibition speaks simultaneously of the migratory aspects of globalisation and the globetrotting international exhibition format that have become normalised in contemporary art. What was lacking, however, was an interrogation of what it means to bring these ostensibly disconnected narratives together and how the globalised art world is just as intricately tied to power, conflict and migration, as is politics.
In the end, as the title alludes, this is story-telling, and it is the telling, listening and retelling of such stories that fabricates our identities and communities. As homogenous national identities have fragmented, a multitude of competing, disjointed and dissonant narratives have arisen out of the mix. In Waterside Contemporary's accompanying programme pamphlet, Hadjithomas and Joreige argue for a recalibration of memory that 'does not stem from a place of power or of knowledge, from a place of certainties, but rather from a place of doubts in the face of the unknown and the future.' Long ago, and not true anyway taps into this uncertainty by producing a space that attempts to creatively re-imagine and re-assemble such mythologies with individual agency.