In his essay from 1953, “Stranger in the Village”, American writer James Baldwin, who stayed in the Swiss village of Leukerbad to work on his novel “Go Tell It on the Mountain”, recounts the experience of being black in an all-white community. It begins like an explorative journey; Baldwin encounters the inhabitants’ narrow-mindedness with a mix of bemusement and sorrow. Baldwin is alert to the absurdity of being a celebrated writer from New York who is nevertheless considered inferior by the Swiss villagers—many of whom have never traveled outside the confines of their communities. With acute awareness of his own “exoticism”, Baldwin is forced to envision an outside gaze informed by an entirely different set of values and categories. Should he, confronted with a new form of racism, insist that he is, in fact, an intellectual? At that moment, it’s his selfperception that is suddenly affected; his blackness becomes even blacker against the backdrop of pristine, Mittel-European white snow, and questions of class play into his subjective self-definition. Later in the essay, his voice intensifies as it swivels back to race in America in the nineteen fifties, becoming both angrier and increasing in clarity.
As a foreigner living in Germany, much of Noa Gur’s recent body of work speaks of subverted perceptions, in particularly self-perception, as informed by the act of navigating between seeing and being seen. In her work “Burning Bush” (2012), the Israeli artist casts herself as a black, fuming stain. The video shows a figure’s torso and head, the neck tilted back slightly to face the viewer over exposed shoulders. The pose would seem flirtatious if it weren’t for the fact that the face is completely obliterated by black soot, and the shoulders dirty. Exhaling and inhaling smoke, the androgyne is menacing; it subverts the iconography of seduction, easily reproducible with a bear shouldered, pouty-mouthed female model, and recalls instead an old racist German rhyme which mocks blackness with the image of a chimney sweeper’s black face.
In “White Noise” (2012) Gur continues the exploration of her self-perception, refracted through a prism of Otherness, into the realm of contemporary art practice as it relates to art historical production. Here, Gur makes imprints of her black, colored face on paper towels, photographs them, and then creates a video showing one printed portrait per frame. In a 25-second loop, she exposes the evolution of the image, from its status as religious iconography to its mechanical reproduction, its pairing with movement, and its more recent digitalization and distribution, while still reinforcing the individuality of each print. Additionally, with the performative tracing of the body, the “cleansing” of the blackened face and her use of paper towels, Gur references a lineage of both feminist art works and early video art, with a wink and a nod towards Martha Rosler’s “Semiotics of the Kitchen”.
Maintaining a focus on the multiply complicated trope of the self-portrait in “Body Bills” (2013), Gur’s own self-portraiture is doubly subverted, becoming entangled with the mystified production of value in the opaque economy of the art world. Rather than producing her own drawings, Gur posed as a nude model at classes for aspiring art students who produce material for submission in their portfolios. Instead of receiving payment based on a fixed hourly rate, she asked for some of the works created during each session in return for her labor. The attribution of value to an art work became particularly pointed when Gur negotiated with students to collect her “remuneration”: the better the drawing, the more successful the overall artist portfolio, and thus the less likely the students were to give it away. This paradox teases out the existing models of value production in the art world: The nude model haggling with the artist, demanding recognition for her work; yet the model also assumes the role of the critic, basing her selections on an assessment of the quality of each drawing. She also becomes the barrier the artists must circumvent on the path to academization, which in turn, will have an effect on the value of their own work. And ultimately, by presenting the drawings as part of a video installation in a gallery, Gur reclaims the cognitive and immaterial labor of the action, slapping it with the label of authorship.
As a performative work, “Body Bills” subverts a traditional model of art learning that’s based on the acts of looking and drawing: The studio becomes a stage rather than a protected place of exercise and production, and the art students act as participants in a performance. Similarly, in her video “Collective Identity” (2014) Gur probes another traditional learning exercise with art. Produced during a year-long residency in her native Israel, the video accompanies a school group on a visit to the Tel Aviv Museum, which houses modern and contemporary art. The children are the sons and daughters of asylum seekers and economic migrants, whose legal status in Israel is precarious. During the visit, they learn to look at art by making sketches of the paintings in the museum’s collection. Their “lesson” is not conveyed with language, but rather substantiated by the established order of visibility and representation. The fact that the children’s own status within Israeli society is unclear or politically contested comes to the fore through their exposure to the Israeli canon,which propagates a reactionary and exclusionary fixed national identity. Gur’s exploration evokes French philosopher Jacques Rancière’s The Politics of Aesthetics, where he argues that aesthetics are necessarily bound up in the struggle of the unrecognized and the unrepresented subject to become visible in the established order. Visibility implies political recognition, as aesthetics are the image of society. They reflect what it is permissible to say and show. Indeed, Gur increasingly engages with the ways in which art institutions and the display of visual culture can become entrenched in programs that instill political ideologies, and serve to affirm those narratives of collective identity politics. Artistic interventions into places of cultural and aesthetic authority have the potential to help to reconfigure, directly or indirectly, the visible landscape.
Collective Identity was also the title of Gur’s most recent show. The aforementioned, eponymous video was shown with two additional works that center on the reliance of nation-states on ideological narratives, while at the same time maintaining the semblance of encouraging a culture of artistic production free of censorship. In “Art Dubai” (2014), her Berlin gallerist recounts an anecdote from the Art Dubai art fair, in which he was asked to conceal the names ‘Israel’ and ‘Persian Gulf’ on an artwork that showed a spinning globe. The request came from the Sheik, and was enforced by the fair organizers. On another wall, the artist screened “Postmodern Ornament” (2014), where the former director of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art recounts a controversial episode from the 1980s: a curator and an artist painted the walls of the museum with the colors of the Palestinian flag for a specific show. He recalls that rather than standing up for their political action, the curator had told him that the paint was but a “postmodern ornament.”
While both anecdotes demonstrate instances where an institution reacts in compliance with a certain political ideology, the work “Collective Identity” exposes something far more troubling: Of particular interest here is the educational audio guide that accompanies the children’s surveying of early Israeli paintings. We hear two Israeli actors play the voices of two Palestinians depicted in one painting, and see the children retracing the visual narrative described, while sitting with their backs to the painting. The actors mimic Arabic accents in an exaggerated manner, ridiculing the “simple” Palestinian farmers. For the children, whose families come from Eastern Europe, South America, Africa and the Far East, and who are marked by their own Otherness in Israeli society, successfully entering the melting pot of Israeli identity is learning–by repetition and reproduction in this case–that the mutual Other is Palestinian.
In presenting the videos together with little commentary, Gur probes the less visible mechanism linking aesthetics to politics in order to uncover the politics of aesthetics—that is, the meanings and images through which a community recognizes itself and its world. As John Berger famously noted, the way we see things is determined by what we know. Gur explores these sites of visual culture as obvious Althusserian sites, where, through selective representations and omissions, knowledge is shaped and dispersed to fit and propagate specific ideologies. To highlight these aspects of certain institutions is to prompt spectators to seek the root of the images being tweaked and critiqued in her work.
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