In Long Ago and Not True Anyway at Waterside Contemporary, curator Pierre d’Alancaisez explores a kind of history that exists beyond the dry material of archives, records, and established national narratives. Instead, in this small London gallery nearly hidden around a corner among Islington’s high-density residential buildings, this exhibition’s artists and artworks blur the borders between uncertain subjective experience and the history it inhabits.
Taking the exhibition’s thesis most directly, the collaborative group Slavs and Tatars claims a spurious (though not necessarily absurd) parallel between the Polish Solidarity movement Solidarność and the Islamic Revolution in Iran. This is history of the imagination, though it is not without purpose: the history of each movement is used as a means by which to understand the other, highlighting similarities where one may at first see culturally—and thus, perhaps, totally—separate events. In Self-Management Body (2013), a vaguely ominous statement of bureaucratic democracy appears silkscreened in both English and Polish across an Iranian pattern. Beside it, the low wedge-shaped sculpture Triangulation (Not Kaliningrad Not Kerbala) (2011) abstractly unites geography, through precise negation, by indicating a common point where the two cities are not. In both works, Slavs and Tatars composes work around cultural claims, drawing focus to the newly figured space between histories.
The less imagined—though no less abstract—effects of movement between cultures are explored on a personal level in the work of Mekhitar Garabedian. In Garabedian’s short projected video MG (2006), the artist makes a tilted homage to the French New Wave film The 400 Blows (1959), performing the film’s powerful scene wherein the hero, Antoine Doinel, repeats his name into a bathroom mirror, again and again, as if to summon himself into being by will alone. Garabedian performs this same ritual, only here the artist alternates between two dialects, switching his pronunciation in turns, as if perpetually unsure which construction of self to summon. Behind this projection, twelve photographs hang in six frames, each displaying interiors of the home in which Garabedian was raised. In this work, titled Gentbrugge (1998–2009), the artist is again figured as a subject in diptych, dislocating the seeming certainty of both memory and identity within migratory experience.
Much of cultural experience comes in the form of narratives and the objects that prove these narratives, a reality explored by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s The Lebanese Rocket Society: A Carpet (2012). Along the gallery’s south wall, the collaborative team has arranged twelve columns of documentation on various projects funded by the American people in Lebanon, including a history of the massive eighteen-by-twelve-foot rug woven by over four hundred Armenian orphans between 1924 and 1925 in Ghazir and sent along with two of these orphans to the United States in 1926 for presentation to President Calvin Coolidge. Before this display lies a massive carpet of nearly the same dimensions, installed at a slight upward angle and showing a gigantic version of a found 1960s-era Lebanese stamp promoting the nation’s space program—a program somehow all but absent from Lebanon’s recorded history. Inverting the relation of object to narrative, the artists present an object that proves an unknown story and, in doing so, seems to beg its audience for a history, much as it has compelled Hadjithomas and Joreige.
Two other works round out the show: Rabih Mroué’s Shooting Images (2013), a re-staging of footage shot by a Syrian civilian in Homs in which a sniper suddenly appears and fatally shoots the cameraman, and Libia Castro and Ólafus Ólafsson’s Your Country Doesn’t Exist—Do It Yourself (UK) (2013). Both works deal with staging and re-staging and the potential power of such gestures, though Mroué’s film turns toward the technologically fantastic possibility of recognizing the cameraman through the reflection in his killer’s eyes, while Castro and Ólafsson turn toward the willingness of a guest painter to alter or execute a prepared painting of the words “Your country doesn’t exist.” As each is a current or former national diplomat, the gesture is not without weight.
Throughout Long Ago and Not True Anyway, historical narratives are exposed to the familiar flux of personal memory. Intersecting the past of nations and places, subjective experiences open spaces of possibility, giving creative insight into the fragility of history.
Long Ago and Not True Anyway is on view at Waterside Contemporary, in London, through October 26, 2013.