The French art of cliché and Middle East bias

By Nick Johnstone, May 2, 2008

Israel fares badly at a Paris exhibition

On the Paris Metro, heading to the Pompidou Centre, there are stickers declaring Israel “a terrorist state”. Once inside Les Inquiets (The Anxious), an exhibition “dealing with the subject of the war in the Middle East” through the work of five artists personally touched by the region’s conflicts, Israel does not fare much better.

The show opens with Israeli artist Yael Bartana’s 2004 Low Relief II, a video projection resembling a mobile frieze. In the ghostly white of the murky images, soldiers appear to be wrestling with an unknown public.

The images are militaristic, predictable and instantly undermine Polish curator Joanna Mytkowska’s statement that she hand-picked the artists for their ability “to translate the oppression of a conflict into an alternative language based on the critical analysis of its causes and background…” There is no alternative language here. Just the expected, over-used images of conflict.

More problematic, the projection appears above the inside of the entrance, a positioning so obtuse that most visitors, unless they stop and look back, walk under and past.

This causes many to think the exhibition instead begins with a trio of photographs of Palestinian refugees in Marseille by Haifa-based Palestinian photographer Ahlam Shibli. It is hard not to read this obscuring of Bartana’s work and directing of visitors to Shibli’s photographs as the casting of a curatorial vote for Palestine, against Israel. Next comes an unimaginative video work by Berlin-based Israeli artist Omer Fast, featuring an either factual or fictionalised account of a tour of duty in Iraq by a US soldier. Intended as a critique of televised conflict coverage, it simply states the obvious.

After that, dominating the exhibit, a series of photographs by Ahlam Shibli, depicting the history of Al-Shibli, a village deeply affected by the founding of Israel. The accompanying captions portray Israel as aggressor, oppressor, land-grabber. Giving Shibli the majority of the exhibition space feels like another curatorial political statement.

From there, you move on to the 2003 video work, Three Posters, by Lebanese artist Rabih Mroue. This reconstructs discarded footage of the “martyr” video testimony of Jamal Satti, who perpetrated the 1985 suicide bombing against an Israeli military base in Lebanon. As the artist critiques the ideology of the bomber, the image of Israel as “occupying” aggressor once more holds the backdrop.

The exhibition ends with another video work, by Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari, depicting an ageing Lebanese “resistance fighter”.

All in all, it is a confused exhibition, rife with the same over-televised/photographed imagery (suicide bombers, refugees, soldiers, flags, guns) it claims to be critiquing. Les Inquiets speaks only in the clichés it promises to transcend.

Les Inquiets continues until May 19. Details at

Last updated: 2:47pm, May 7 2008