Khalil Rabah: Pages 7, 8, 9 at e-flux
On 2nd February 2013, e-flux's exhibition space on Manhattan's East Broadway hosted Khalil Rabah's first solo exhibition in the United States. Khalil Rabah: Pages 7, 8, 9 presented the artist's work from the last ten years in a very curious manner. The exhibition was contextualized by a symposium entitled 'Some Thoughts Regarding the Erection of the Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind', a day-long program of presentations and critical discussion on Rabah's practice and the projects he is affiliated with, namely, The Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind (2003-ongoing), a work that is and is not about Palestine.
On the day of the symposium, Rasha Salti, independent writer and curator, provided a historical survey of the political and artistic state in Palestine after the Nakba. Reem Fadda, associate curator of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and curator of the UAE Pavilion in the 2013Venice Biennale gave an in-depth lecture about Rabah's work, picking up from Salti's historical grounds of the social and political spectrum of Palestine, stressing that it is nature, the body and architecture that are the key elements to reading Rabah's work. Finally, Suad Al Amri, architect, writer and founder of RIWAQ, was joined by Rabah to attempt what she called the impossible mission to have Khalil talk about his work. The day concluded with a performance by e-flux founder and editor Anton Vidokle and co-editor Brian Kuan Wood, dressed in furry wolf and dolphin suits respectively, reciting a poetic and philosophical dialogue to each other: an uncanny scene accompanied by a dramatic Valkyrie-esque soundtrack playing in the background. They closed with a list of questions regarding Rabah's work: What happens when an artist stops producing works and instead produces a museum? What happens when an artist stops producing a museum and instead produces worlds? What happens when an artist stops producing worlds and instead produces a kind of consciousness that is itself capable of producing worlds? And what happens when these worlds become tired of producing only themselves, then decide to start producing humans and other forms of life?
The exhibition presents Rabah's oeuvre over the past ten years as a constellation of three segments in the e-flux space, outlining the skeleton, veins and skin of his artistic project. The summer 2011 museum newsletter looks as a typical promotional museum brochure laid out in a standard type and image format. Not only are its contents divided into clear categories pertaining to The Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind, including an editorial statement concerning the museum's institutional history and sections on education, anthropology and botany, to name a few, but the newsletter itself is the source and initiator of the other art objects appearing in the exhibition space. The summer 2011 issue is highlighted throughout, spawning various incarnations of itself. It has been reproduced as large oil paintings, quoted in a neon sign, and bound up in an anthology of all the museum's newsletters combined for sale at e-flux for $20 a copy.
In conversation with Rabah, he expressed his intention to create an inward institutional critique on how a museum can become a body in his work as a whole. Act I: Painting (2011) consists of twenty-four oil paintings of each of the pages from the summer 2011 museum newsletter. Each painting is installed on sliding metal racks, the kind you find in the climate-controlled storage of a museum. Pages 7, 8, 9 are extracted from these racks and hung on the wall around the corner in a secluded viewing space. Act II: Moulding (2012), is a glowing red neon reads: 'In this issue: Statement concerning the institutional history of the museum.' Act III: Printing (2011) are boxes containing the twenty-four page newsletters. Rabah explained how the newsletter-in its various formats-can ultimately produce an anatomy or an architecture for a museum. In other words, his exhibition and the format of the newsletter itself, display the rhetoric of institutional language in parallel to the structural or even the architectural.
The exhibition is and isn't about Palestine. Rabah positions these works as if they exist in a parallel universe where the word Palestine, and the existence of its museum is not politically controversial, rather a normalized existence such as The American Museum of Natural History in New York. The exhibition and the symposium propose an austere formality-although after witnessing both, it is evident how the artist manipulated their conventional structures. With the exhibition, Rabah has formalized and institutionalized the museum by representing it through the rhetoric of the museum newsletter and continuing to deconstruct the gesture of the newsletter by way of various forms – Act I Painting, Act II Moulding, Act III Printing. In turn, the symposium asserts itself as an academic authoritative forum on the museum and the work of Rabah; the use of the word symposium making reference to an institutional conference.
Although the museum's actual existence has been a question posed to Rabah since its inception, focusing on this issue would be missing the point. In this manifestation of The Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind, the museum appears in its own newsletter, thus institutionalizing itself and evidently confirming its existence. The artist has constructed this museum and the world(s) surrounding and emerging from it. As participants in this construct, we accept the reality and function of this museum. Indeed, this is what Rabah's work is about. Khalil Rabah: Pages 7, 8, 9 upturns the familiar structures of a museum by way of copulating them with new forms. The metal racks, oil paintings, newsletter, signage, rhetoric, PR and symposiums are reformulated to present this self-generating institution. The Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind is not a cabinet of curiosities filled with extinct objects, or a lamenting holding onto the past.
Within this artwork lies a grand gesture; one that has produced a formula for new worlds and an alternative discourse that breathes new imaginations and possibilities for the past, present and future of the museum both a physical thing and as a notion. The beauty of institutions is that they do not rely on a single figure to keep them going. Once erected, they can continue existing on their own, continuing their establishment. In Rabah's words: 'Something gives life to something else: one world is born and so it begins to speak for itself.'
Khalil Rabah: Pages 7, 8, 9 remains on view at e-flux until 20th April 2013.