Posted by on February 08, 2013 in Blog

By Jade Zoghbi

Spring 2013 Intern

The exhibition by Iraqi-born and London-based artist Jananne Al-Ani (1966) is on view at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington DC.

Set underground in a space of three connected dark rooms, it is only illuminated by large suspended screens of video installations. And in its complex simplicity, its power is found. The exhibition Shadow Sites II (2011) is memorable and relevant, and the combined images of Middle Eastern lands and sound effects will shape the spectator’s perception and invite him/her to reimagine the desert’s landscape and its historical significance.

Shadow Sites is part of the archival-based research collection of works entitled The Aesthetics of Disappearance: A Land Without People, motivated by various archival works such as those by German archeologist Ernst Herzfeld (1879-1948) of which Al-Ani selected some to complement themes echoed in her video installations. The two artists, though separated by decades, have approached the desert from interestingly different vantage points and scales. Herzfeld’s photography offers the perspective of a panoramic landscape, while Al-Ani’s video works draw the viewer to become part of the images.

The exhibition consists of two videos by Ali-Ani that are drawn from her most recent collection and which challenge stereotypical and temporal perspectives of the desert terrain.

The Guide and Flock and Shadow Sites II are presented alongside a selected collection of early 20th century photographs of sites in Iraq and Iran by Ernst Herzfeld. The works of Ali-Ani and Herzfeld are closely connected—in The Guide and Flock, a man is stepping slowly into the larger image and disappears into the landscape of a long road before him. In the same image, but on a smaller screen, the image of a flock of sheep is disturbed by the interruption of cars and buses busily appearing every few seconds. The small video of the flock tempts the viewer to come closer, and by approaching the screen, his/her very own shadow becomes part of the piece, and appears and disappears like the man in the video. We thereby become displaced and imagine ourselves part of the deserted road.

The second video, Shadow Sites II, is a collection of aerial photographs which morph into one historical documentary that allows the spectator to visualize the terrain and its developments.

The Herzfeld photographs depict sceneries and pieces of isolated lands, city walls, and mosques which represent the remains of an unseen civilization. Herzfeld took numerous photographs in these expeditions, capturing sites such as Persepolis, Paikuli, and Aleppo. In these pieces, one copy reflects his shadow while taking the image as part of the picture, and in the subsequent, he has removed his reflection. Interestingly, no population is directly seen in these images, but a black figure in the distance can be found in some images further supporting the theme of a detached perspective.

Perhaps most striking in the exhibition is the last room. A screen displays moving images differing in altitude and size, drawn borders and the remains of indistinguishable structures and cities and agricultural fields. The images are supplemented by the buzzing sound of what seems like a plane’s motor, birds, and drones.

The manner in which photography shapes imaginings of the Middle East is central to Al-Ani. Some of her works were produced after the Iraqi Gulf War (1991), following the rising popularity of aerial images in military conduct. In World War I, aerial photography was critical to controlling and capturing Middle Eastern territories.

From far above, we tend to make a quick judgment of what is seen, or let it linger in mystery. Hence, the landscape of the Middle East which often informs the viewer of its population has for long been associated with the ancient imaginings of the Oriental, a war-zone, a space unpopulated and mysterious.

Jananne Al-Ani has held exhibitions in various art centers and institutions around the world, including the Middle East. For your last chance in the area, the exhibition can be viewed till February 10th, 2013 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington DC. Entrance is free. 

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