A Bottomless Silence
A Bottomless Silence was not conceived for an online platform, but was intended to be viewed within the walls of the Wallach Art Gallery alongside other student projects. But in the face of the unprecedented circumstances caused by the spread of COVID-19, such an exhibition is no longer possible. Instead, we rely on this online platform to share some images, text, and film.The works presented here speak to the processes of recording, our attempts to make meaning of the remnants of the past, and the insurmountability of the silences that nonetheless permeate history. I hope that in this moment, as we live through these extraordinary events we can probe and question the various forces that determine which stories are told and how we come to understand them.
The artists in A Bottomless Silence—Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Jumana Manna, and Walid Raad—investigate the vastness of the silences that permeate the histories surrounding us. They engage with the past by probing the powers that mediate our relationship to it, to reimagine our experiences of the present and the future. The exhibition takes its name from a passage in the anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s text Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, which examines the writing of history and the multitude of ways that silences can enter into its production.In this concise group of works from the last decade, the artists mine historical material in acts of recovery and reimagination, illuminating how the sounds, textures, and colors of bygone eras persist into the present and hereafter. They also highlight the conditions that allow for certain histories to be affirmed while others are suppressed. Hailing from formerly colonized nations in the regions we know as the Middle East and North Africa, and living and working between cities in Europe and the United States, Kaabi-Linke, Manna, and Raad pose perspectives that complicate fixed notions of identity. These life experiences lend a critical lens to their creative inquiries into the histories produced by the likes of government, academics, and museums.Using fictive, documentary, and forensic techniques to guide viewers to the archives they explore, these artists reveal alternatives to dominant narratives. Yet, the very act of recording will always produce silences. This exhibition posits an understanding of time and history that recognizes the instability of its construction—that which is revealed and that which is silenced is in constant flux. We face the immense trove of evidence before us knowing that there will never be a bottom to the silence, and with the weighty feeling that these silences are a site of nearly infinite potential to redefine the future.
A castle, a fort, a battlefield, a church, all these things bigger than we that we infuse with the reality of past lives, seem to speak of an immensity of which we know little except that we are part of it. . . . They give us the power to touch it, but not to hold it firmly in our hands—hence the mystery of their battered walls. We suspect that their concreteness hides secrets so deep that no revelation may fully dissipate their silences. We imagine the lives under the mortar, but how do we recognize the end of a bottomless silence?—Michel-Rolph Trouillot
Mistake-Out Friedrichstadt, 2018
In this installation, Nadia Kaabi-Linke uses over four hundred individual mosaic pieces to mark the imprints of bullet holes on a wall in Berlin’s Friedrichstadt neighborhood—and the subsequent, imperfect efforts to cover them up. Her mosaics trace their exact placement, directly transposing the scars of this past across space and time to the gallery’s walls. The immensity of the seeming blankness of white tiles on white walls balances on the fine line between visibility and invisibility—articulation and erasure.
In Mistake-Out Friedrichstadt Kaabi-Linke chooses to take stock of the very act of erasure, drawing attention to the institutional powers that mediate our relationship and access to the past, as such her work raises many questions: How do we live with the remnants of our past? Who is the arbiter of what must be preserved or destroyed? Her tactile engagement with the wounds of the city suggests a desire for intimacy with the place she now calls home. And although the subtlety of Kaabi-Linke’s gesture appears careful and gentle, we cannot forget that the very act of recording will nonetheless always also produce silences. Kaabi-Linke is on the quest to know, and perhaps even to heal by exploring the histories beneath the surface.
Magical Substance Flows into Me, 2016
In her film, A Magical Substance Flows into Me, Jumana Manna reanimates the British Mandate–era archives of the German ethnomusicologist Robert Lachmann, who hosted a radio program on music in Palestine. Traveling across present-day Palestine and Israel, she conducts interviews and invites people to perform contemporary renditions of the genres of music Lachmann had identified.
In A Magical Substance Flows into Me, the moving musical performances and their inclusions amongst scenes of daily life highlight that far from being relegated to the past and maintaining the uninfluenced “authenticity” of Oriental music that Lachmann so vehemently championed, the lyrics, melodies, and beats of these old musical styles persist in the present in the songs of Palestinians and Israelis alike. It is through this journey of contact with present-day practitioners that Manna dislocates the colonial narrative.Manna is an active agent in the reading and re-presenting history, not only by offering an alternative reading to Lachmann’s, but also in allowing for the music to assert its ongoing presence and transformation. Yet, while the music may live and travel freely amongst cultures, across borders, and through time, Manna does not deny the realities of the power exerted by the Israeli government that not only categorically divides Arab and Jew, but also upholds the infrastructures to police the division and maintain the very institutions that house and legitimize narratives and archives like Lachmann’s.Here Jumana Manna discusses the film after its North American premiere at the closing night of the 2016 edition of Art of the Real at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Walid Raad—Preface to the third edition (Édition française)
In 2017, The Louvre Abu Dhabi opened. But the museum did not have enough objects to fill its display cases. This was expected all along, and the Paris Louvre had prepared 300 objects to travel to Abu Dhabi for the museum’s opening. Of the 300 objects, 22 were affected by the journey in strange ways: the objects’ outline remained intact, but their façade (or skin) was that of another object. Needless to say, this puzzled all concerned.
As an artist-in-residence in the Paris Louvre at the time, I requested and was granted permission to examine the objects. Ten months in, and for reasons that remain obscure to me even today, I decided to view the objects through colored masks whose outlines matched the silhouettes of some Persian miniature paintings. This produced a momentous revelation. The affected object’s façade seemed to reveal another’s behind it. Hundreds of masks and colors later, I was able to confirm that each object was in fact a composite of at least two others.
Here, I present photographs of the objects as seen through my filters. As to the reasons for these transformations, they remain beyond my grasp.
Using images, interpretive texts, and indexical references Raad highlights the discursive space of the institution and the power of narratives to mediate our reading and understanding of such objects. Each plate shows an image of an object from the Louvre’s collection, but with altered and mismatched textures and colors. These hybrid artifacts create the overall impression of an object that one could label as “Islamic”, and only closer inspection reveals their inconsistencies. The generalized image, although not altogether real or accurate, holds some truth to how we experience the past—shedding light on the way that historical artifacts can function as symbols for certain periods or regions. Raad considers how such objects negotiate their migration, and in the accompanying text asserts that they underwent bizarre transformations during their travel to Abu Dhabi, bringing to question the role they will play in their new location. Between truth and fiction, such narratives reveal Raad’s interest in probing the lines between past, present, and future; taking on the power of the museum and the role of historical objects in nation building; as well as having us question under what conditions, if any, we are able to see fully.
Rotana Shaker will soon be a graduate of the Masters in Modern and Contemporary Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies (MODA) program at Columbia University. She is currently a Curatorial Fellow at the Wallach Art Gallery, during which time she curated the exhibition, A Bottomless Silence. She is interested in contemporary art, with a particular focus on artists who, like herself, inhabit and traverse various national and cultural borders and explore themes of history, identity, and belonging.