Once I was actually at the museum, with a guy who looked Muslim on one side of me and a guy who wore a yarmulkah on the other, I remembered ninth grade geography. My ninth grade geography teacher always did the middle east first. Get it over with, he said. Too depressing. For me, it was all those years of Tea Cake dying and them hanging John Proctor, over and over. At least those were sexy deaths.
The show at the New Museum is “from and about the Arab world.” You end up sort of looking at a Time magazine cover with Anwar Sadat on it. You see photos of people who live in a rough place and look rather rough, kids and people posing with guns, things people have left behind because of wars. That is, much of it was cut so long or was so on-the-nose that I wasn’t drawn in. There are flyers, there is amateur work, and there are pieces by artists whose thoughtfulness shows.
Here’s what was great.
Family trees of middle eastern royal families, titled “Probleme” and various numbers. In our country, where your family tree is rarely discussed, and if then, only as a novelty, it reminds that many places, for many people, this charting of who came from whom was critical. Great color, and careful balance of using but not exhausting the idea. Are they molecules? Spreading diseases? Periodic tables? I wished there were more of the pieces that used the shapes of Arabic letters, which I have always loved.
The New Museum seems to have a thing for miniature cities. I loved their last miniature city, by Christopher Burden, and they have another miniature city, this one by Wafa Hourani, called Qalandia 2087, and it “envisions different futures of the Qalandai refugee camp [which was] established in 1959 on land leased from Jordan…though it was originally built to accommodate about three thousand people—Palestinian refugees from nearby villages—its population has nearly quadrupled in the fifty years since” and the tag on the wall goes on to tell you more about the refugee camp and it is, I assure you, depressing.
The city isn’t depressing, though, it’s great. Walt Disney had a thing for miniatures. I didn’t think I did. In Kansas City, there is a museum with an extensive collection of miniatures, some are toys and some are, I don’t know, collector pieces? Art pieces? I know you can go there and see cool train sets, great doll houses, and recreations of not the world’s smallest, but a pretty damn small violin. They have miniatures of candy shops and hotels and bars. In some of them, there is a hidden mouse to find. You know, for kids.
At Disney World, you can see the miniature of Progress City, USA, Walt Disney’s idea for how things should be. It has a ferris wheel. Tiny lights. Places for work and play! Hourani has a similarly whimsical attitude, with his city containing a goldfish pond and music playing, silly, cheerful music. (Those goldfish might be rather dangerous considering the size of the humans in the city, who are about the size of three of these capital Xs.) Someday, that camp will be a place people water potted plants and sit on their rooftops and there will still and always be all those antennae– he seems to have made them out of sparkly pipe cleaners. The sand, dusky brown gravel, has glitter in it, too.
A Moroccan guy makes drawings and collages inside matchbooks. Everyone loves these. Is that significant? I don’t know. It gives you that old, I should makes something feeling, which is always good. That appreciation for people making things to please themselves.
There were a lot of pieces that used photography and drawing together. The only one that interested me was one well balanced by Anna Boghiguian. It said something about the inside and outside world, and how they work with each other.
I have sworn off two things: reading in galleries, watching movies in galleries. (On this note, the posts on the walls about the work are infuriatingly difficult to match with the work, I don’t care how cool the gallery looks, and two long paragraphs to explain who an artist is and what the work is about is too much when you have 30 artists in a show. Even for people who like to read. Edit, edit.) Exception: maybe your movie is very short, and/or very static. “Twenty Eight Nights: ENDNOTE” is static enough. Akram Zaatari’s film shows two men looking at a laptop screen that faces away from you. They are watching, not reacting much, just the blank faces of people watching moving pictures. Dancey music plays, like right behind them is a woo-hoo party. I laughed. At a certain point, party lights come on in the next room, some flashing pink and blue and stuff. Funny. I don’t know why. I don’t know what is was about. I’m still thinking about it. Video here.
What did this tell us about the middle east, thought? I knew before I went in that many people, just now, would rather talk about money than the middle east. As I was going down and around their narrow white staircase, I thought about the people going down the stairs of the towers, some got far enough, some didn’t. Someone lifted up his kid to see what looked to me like an alphabet of Arabic letters, in great colors, an orange, olives, a braid, a bullet, a grenade. “Those are letters,” he said.
Top image by Muhamad Arabi.