10 September–1 November, 2009, ICA, London
The camera is often described as a surrogate for its operator, it captures immediately comprehensible images, yet the distance between the ‘how and why’ of the filmmaker’s motivations and the flicker of what we see is often perplexing. Film creates an illusion, an alternative that distracts us from the everyday, yet we somehow need to rationalise it. For Nashashibi, this to-and-fro between visual understanding and its potential narratives and where we look for them is vitally important. This exhibition spans four years and includes the majority of the artist’s 16mm work, along with a new photographic and audio installation; in seeing this comprehensive selection of works together the artist’s key themes and devices build a clear picture of her developing lexicon.
There is something incredibly simple about Nashashibi’s work, yet the way we absorb her films often denies this simplicity. Take ‘Eyeballing’, 2005, the earliest work included in the exhibition. Made while on residency in New York the artist literally eyeballs members of the NYPD with her camera as they exit their precinct. It’s no coincidence these police officers are the pinnacle representations of power, and are coincidentally-or-not, male. This work is fundamental to the exhibition as it is the first work in which her inquisitiveness met filmic-material and it is with this work that she sets about disarming our relationship with the moving-image as well as initiating her own understanding of it. As a viewer we are in vulnerable territory, like Nashashibi, in an unfamiliar city, and our collective willingness to engage with the friendly and sometimes despairing faces that appear at random in compositions of everyday scenes underline this insecurity with a sense of the pathetic. Nashashibi’s task was comprehending her surrounding with the camera, for the viewer we understand her film in much the same way.
The more recent double projection, ‘The Prisoner’, 2008, deals with gender politics in a much more direct manner, and, for its blatancy, it is perhaps the weakest work included. The camera tracks a suited female protagonist as she traverses London’s South Bank, passing the BFI and travelling through the National Theatre, where the locations multiple levels and brutalist architecture are oppressive forces on the subject’s assertive demeanor. Nashashibi’s romantic relationship with filmic-material is emphasised by the visibility of the piece’s two projectors, with their abrupt clicks and relentless purr doubling in intensity as the film runs through one projector and into another, creating a loop and an eight second delay to the later projection. The narrative is dramatic, the work’s titling is emotively dichotomous and the accompanying Rachmaninov soundtrack imbues a sense of exile over the film’s protagonist. Is she prisoner as a female in her institutional surroundings, or is the film itself prisoner in the looped playback of the two projectors.
In the most complexly-layered piece, ‘Bachelor Machines Part 2’, 2007, the viewer is bombarded with an array of artist film-making tropes. A double screen projection: on the left are black and white excerpts from a film by Alexander Kluge; on the right, out of focus excerpts from ‘Eyeballing’ that progressively sharpen up along with fragments of another of her works ‘Park Ambassador’. The audio is a discussion between artist Thomas Bayrle and artist and writer Mathias Faldbakken. Nashishibi knows each element intricately and understands the subtleties of their relationships as they play out together, but these intricacies are unimportant. They are simply a means for th artist to arrive at an abstruse work that dismantles the viewer’s relationship with what is being watched, numbing them into viewing an abstract whole. That said, the references are all there if you want to mine the film in repeated viewing, but doing this seems to miss the point.
Nashashibi’s most resent 16mm work, ‘Jack Straw’s Castle’, 2009, is her most refined to date and deals with a number of themes that were uncovered in earlier works. The piece shares its title with the renowned public house on the perimeter of Hampstead Heath where the film was shot. From a distance Nashashibi records men in pseudo-anthropological style as they walk through the trees of the heath, an area synonymous with gay cruising. The artist implies the activity through editing techniques, but whether these men are in fact cruising for sex is unclear. In choosing them as her collective subject, Nashashibi records their implied acts of deliberate ambiguity, and represents them with a degree of coy innocence.
As the film progresses and darkness falls, a film within a film is exposed as the crew set up scaffolding and lighting for a nocturnal shoot. Interestingly, the only woman on set is the artist’s mother. In highlighting the act of observation, Nashashibi clearly undermines our understanding of the viewer’s relationship to the work. In addition to this technique she includes other visual counterparts: a hare grazing, a magpie, various takes of a early renaissance painting of a deer wit a human face. With these devices direct comparisons are drawn between human and animal behaviours. We are forced to interrogate what is kept hidden and what is revealed, a manouver that ultimately hollows the viewer of their preconceptions and installs a set of new ones that will serve Nashashibi well in future works.
Steven Cairns is co-editor of MAP