Beyond Finitude: Steve Sabella’s 38 days of Re-Collection | T.J. demos | Kerber Verlag

2017

How does one materialize the grief of geopolitical dislocation and historical injustice—in this case, that of the occupation of Palestine—into a mode of sensibility, one that isn’t captured by its own melancholic negativity?
With 38 Days of Re-Collection, we glimpse scenes of aesthetic plenitude, just beyond reach. Beyond reach because the images are flattened, obscured, fragmented, blurred and discolored. Their supports are irregular, each being singular, being ripped from walls, ripped from time, opening layers of the past. They are portals to the past, peeled-away strata, archaeological traces. In some, arabesques appear, whether on actual fragments of wall decoration or delivered via photographic images printed on such fragments, showing interiors with tiled floors, which speak of simple ways of turn- ing a house into a home. We see designs of geometrical patterns, floral arrangements, simple ornamental compositions such as images of intertwining ribbons, diamond- and star-shapes and -patterns—compositions that allude to the pleasures of overcoming natural imperfection and arbitrariness. These designs indicate an order of logic, mathematical and spatial regularity, predictable patterns that undoubtedly would continue on beyond these fragments if they were not cut off from their sources. They imply forms of continuity and con- trol over one’s environment. As well, they intimate the privilege of being in a position to beautify one’s home, betraying an assumed security of a desire for more than creaturely subsistence, an assumption of style and even domestic comfort. These are traditional patterns of Jerusalem, their recognizability owing to the fact that they are familiar and common local designs, thus part of a longstanding collective culture, if of diverse religions. They allude to a time, in other words, of now-longed for relative communal security and comfort, of being part of a stable social environment stretching through time without limit.1
Domestic images of objects like pots and pans, cook- ing knives hanging on a wall, also appear in these image-fragments. Their very connection to a kitchen indicates a stability and privilege that is itself a pre- cious thing, one denied to the displaced and homeless. Similarly, on other fragments, framed photographs of individuals and family portraits appear as blurred images with spots and stains, faces only just legible, interrupted by tears, textural irregularities, and gaping holes in their support structure. As Ella Shohat ob- serves, the series’ process of scraping away layers of walls, on which Sabella prints his photographic depictions, constitute “both an act of excavation of the bur- ied substrata of forgotten lives, as well as a means to visualize lives once again intermingled.”2 These faces consequently assume a ghostly presence, situating the images between appearance and disappearance, within the realm of the hauntological—the realm of the haunting of being as much as the being of haunting.3 What is this haunting?
On the one hand, we know that this project, 38 Days of Re-Collection, concerns the work of an artist who has extensively transformed the anguished personal and collective experience of Palestinian political and geo- graphical displacement into aesthetic sensibility. He has done so across a number of artworks, offering ways of sensing the complex emotions that have accompanied that experience of dislocation and the denial of one’s home, which for Palestinians began in 1948 with the Nakba: the catastrophe of Israel’s violent expropriation of Palestinian territory and the forced exile of approximately 800,000 people from their homeland. That disaster also continues to this day, via collective and post-memory (by the descendants of the originally traumatized), as well as with the ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands, including the militarized regimentation of artificial geographies of separation and inequality, producing scenes of everyday violence, together with the continual refusal of homecoming to multitudes of Palestinian refugees. The aesthetic plenitude glimpsed in these objects of 38 Days of Re- Collection remembers and re-collects the prehistory of that trauma, a time before the trauma, as well as offering a promise of hope for the future—perhaps one day the wholeness of life, the secure connection to one’s homeland and the aesthetic privilege it might afford, will be available again.

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