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An Aesthetics oF Dis/Placement: Steve Sabella’s 38 days oF Re-Collection | Ella Shohat | Kerber Verlag


Steve Sabella’s 38 Days of Re-Collection (2014) suggestively conveys the thrust of the idea of displacement. As metonym, “displacement” signifies the actual movement from place to place, and as metaphor it refers to comparable acts of movement from one place to an- other. Most importantly, the concept of “dis/placement” can be understood to evoke out-of-placeness, especially when, in absentia, the presence of a place is mediated through memory, narration, and representation.
The basic material of Sabella’s re-collections—B & W photo emulsion spread on swashes of color paint scraped from the walls of houses in Jerusalem’s Old City—is composed of fragments gathered from several sources and now “housed” within spaces of art collection. The stand-alone materiality of each piece, literally extracted from a wall, conveys a layered history through palpable layers of paint. The scraped paint, with its several strata of color, forms a literal palimpsest, testify- ing as it were to the various hands that had painted each one. The turquoise in particular evokes the greenish shades of the wall paint color commonly preferred by indigenous communities of the region (whether Muslims, Christians, or Jews) to protect against evil spirits. Scraping thus becomes both an act of excavation of the buried substrata of forgotten lives, as well as a means to visualize lives once again intermingled.
At the same time, the colors (the turquoise, the brown and the beige), in conjunction with the jagged shape of the fragment, generate a strong impression of a map. As objects of visual representation, maps are premised on some correspondence to the “real,” the physical land and sea and so forth. Yet the shape of the “map,” in this in- stance, portrays a country nowhere to be found.
Here the map becomes a signifier without a referent, a simulacrum of simulacra, a token of powerlessness and the arbitrary nature of maps. In a kind of premonition about the overpowering force of maps, the scraped fragment evokes both roots and routes.
The partially discernible colors of the fragment re-present the adorned walls that wrapped generations of the living in a modicum of continuing at-home-ness. Sabella’s artwork in this sense inhabits at once the present (the actual paint-piece) and the past (the inter-generational layers of paint). Similarly, the superimposition of the image of the kitchen—the window and hanging pots and pans and even a decorative cat figure—on the scraped paint suggests quotidian domesticity. The kitchen becomes the privileged site of food preparation both as digestive necessity and culinary tradition, while also redolent of sensuous delights and communal rituals. But in contrast to the materiality of the scraped paint, the black-and-white kitchen has the immateriality of a superimposed image, thus forming a simultaneous presence-absence that inscribes a quotidian life haunted by a ghostly past.
The black-and-white kitchen image in this sense evokes all that was left behind in the lives of those dis- placed, wandering across land and sea. The kitchen superimposed on the “map” also suggestively turns routes into a form of rootedness, as the dishes are passed on and forge home-ness even in-transit. At the same time, the paint fragment and the black-and- white kitchen together register a vision of scattered lives, while underscoring a possible state of exile even when literally at home. The artwork suggests a dis- placement of a place and particularly of Jerusalem as “a city exiled,” in Sabella’s words, “from itself.” The black-and-white image, furthermore, is reminiscent of archival footage—of the photos and films associated with Jerusalem dating back to the 19th century. And this archive, which today is circulating in digital space, has become a visual testimony to a Palestinian existence prior to the “settling in” of a new order. The fragment-object is a remainder but also a reminder of the kitchen’s nourishing role, that of preserving and transmitting sentient life.



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