Play some more Bach
by Naeem Mohaiemen
“One dawn, a General will take over the country. He will call in a judge. That stupid judge will believe that he is the one who is really running the country. Then the general will keep giving the country boot-sunglass-left-right democracy. All the famed opportunists (this word is now a form of praise) will come to the shade of his boot. One day that General will be immortal.”
– Humayun Azad, Rajnithibidgon/ The Politicians. Dhaka: Agami Press, 1998
Mufathalle, Munich, 2006.
The weekend event is part of a series called Dictionary of War. Twenty five artists and academics, presenting talks pivoting off a word about warfare. Camouflage, Declaration of War, Desertion, Heroes, Liberation, Mobilization, National Anthem, Negotiation, Resistance.
My word: Prisoner of War.
As we present concepts, the Lebanon invasion is in its second week. There are accommodations made to reflect this reality insertion into our mannered, bilingual program. Mansur Jacoubi joins us from Beirut for some clunky IRC chat.
Somebody asks him, “Mansur, can you describe the situation there?”
Akram Zaatari comes in from Paris to present some earlier work. Stranded outside the country by the invasion, he is the only one available to us.
E-flux starts to show all their Lebanese videos. A good collection.
I feel the cramp of anxiety. Will all these sculpted words have an impact outside this room? I am missing the codec to transmit all this energy into action.
Back in Dhaka, friends are organizing rallies to protest the war. I send them the announcement for Dictionary and get a withering response by e-mail.
“Rakho eyshob. Sitting in an AC room discussing war, while the Middle East burns! Kono mane hoy.”
AC is somehow, always, the sign of hermetically sealed off Epcots.
Is there even an AC in this auditorium? I am not so sure. If it is there, it must be very quiet.
Summer in Munich.
I try to muster up an appropriate response as to why all of this matters, even in this moment. I believe in everything I say, but the geopolitical context is extraordinary and extreme. Can we have a break in our smooth programming?
I talk to an organizers Could we issue a statement from the artists calling for a cease-fire? Yet another symbolic gesture, to pile up on top of others– but at least the gesture is made.
More importantly, there is a peace rally in downtown Munich; perhaps we can take a break and join it?
People like the idea in principle, although I am told the logistics are “challenging.” In the end, it fizzles out.
Before too long, the weekend is over. Everyone is headed toward the airport. No rally, no statement.
I feel deflated, even though the weekend went as promised, planned, and scheduled.
Is that all there is?
Soho gallery, New York, 2006.
Valentin Manz of London’s Vision Machine is persuasive. Somehow, he has convinced a gallery, not previously known for patronizing political work, to host his group show.
“I don’t understand,” I ask as we start installing my piece. “On what basis did they give you the space? Did they see the title? Rule of Law. What do they think it’s about?”
According to Valentin, the curators had seen his exhibition of glass pieces in Williamsburg, and that was enough. They did not link his gnarled glass shards with exploded heads. Or even if they did, it did not seem to worry them.
His partner Christine Cynn is also with him.
She is at home, quietly working away. I do not quite know what she is working on. She has shown me a clip, of Indonesian men in costume, some in drag, dancing choreographed steps inside a giant fish. I still do not know what she is working on.
Six years later, her project will finally be released as the, by now legendary, Joshua Oppenheimer directed (Christine Cynn co-directed), film The Act of Killing (2012).
For now though, all I know is, she is working on a “difficult film.”
That leaves me and Valentin in the gallery.
As we paste photocopied statements by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, marking them with “artist labels” (A Gonzales, mixed media, 2006), I wonder if there will be a moment before the opening when all this comes together for the gallery. It is 2006, the environment is against even the mildest form of critique of the Bush-era war machine.
I have been in similar scenarios at least once before. Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. A few hours before that opening, a museum director made the rounds and read labels. Then there was a frantic scuffling, a quiet meeting, and finally the curator walked over to me.
well, you see, I don’t quite know how to say it, but, there’s a slight problem. no nothing big, but we were just wondering if…
This time around, the install goes off without a hitch. It is August and that might be part of the reason (“dead time” for galleries).
On opening night, the same faces I had been seeing at meetings of anti-war group Action Wednesdays were there. The art audiences having gone on summer break, a different energy permeated the room. The staff at the gallery seemed nervous.
Still everyone was polite to us until two friends start debating Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon, very near the entrance. The woman serving drinks became increasingly jittery.
Very soon, there is no more wine.
Valentin was puzzled– he had also bought a case of wine, that could not be gone too. Then one of the gallery assistants informed us that because it is summer, they have to close the place early.
Sorry, the opening is not until 8 after all.
It is all very rush-rush, the room needs to be cleared. As I walk towards the exit, I spot one potential source of trouble. One of our friends had kindly assumed– well, from the name of the show, it was natural– that this was an appropriate venue for giving out copies of the IndyMedia newspaper. On the front page were images of Lebanon.
Too much of a reality intrusion for the gallery staff.
Like Linda Blair’s possessed Regan walking in on the party, urinating on the carpet, and blurting out that eerie prediction (William Friedkin, Exorcist, 1973).
What was the response to Mikhail Goldstein’s concert in besieged Stalingrad?
“Play some more Bach. We won’t shoot.”
That is why, in spite of disappointments, we keep working. We keep making work.
Abbreviated and adapted from “These guys are artists and who gives a shit,” the curatorial essay of System Error: war is a force that gives us meaning, curated by Lorenzo Fusi & Naeem Mohaiemen, Palazzo Papesse, Siena, 2006.
About Naeem Mohaiemen
Born 1969, London. Works in Dhaka and New York.
Naeem Mohaiemen explores histories of the international left and the contradictions of nationalisms through essays, photography, film, and installation. Since 2006, he has worked onThe Young Man Was, a history of the ultra-left in the 1970s, with each portion in a different medium. The latest installment of the project, United Red Army, is a film about the 1977 hijack of a Japan Airlines flight (shobak.org).
Mohaiemen’s essays include “Islamic roots of Hip-Hop” (Sound Unbound, MIT Press), “Asterix and the big fight” (Playing by the rules, Apex Art), “Live true life or die trying” (Visual Culture Reader, 3rd Ed., Routledge), and “These guys are artists and who gives a shit” (System Error, Silvana). The themes he has addressed in his work have been described as “not yet disillusioned fully with the capacity of human society” (Vijay Prashad, Take on Art). Mohaiemen is a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at Columbia University.
2014 Copyright HIVE, Naeem Mohaimen