Leaps of Faith
“Past and future quarrel over one and the same image of absence“1
This project was always going to have to negotiate its participation within a current in contemporary art – that of culture assumed to be at the service of international political interests – any internationally funded project will fall within this demand, which is not to say that it is necessarily defined by it. This matters, for the representations of real politic haunts every fibre of the project, “Leaps of Faith”.
There is no doubt that representations of the history of Cyprus itself are overwhelmed and obfuscated by the military and political representations that have determined it since 1974, and now at the centre of compelling international interests, all discourse functions as if contemporary Cyprus began in 1974. It was undoubtedly necessary that ‘Leaps of Faith’ did not simply reproduce these representations as, ‘The first International exhibition to be located on the Green line in Nicosia’, given that it was enabled largely by these same international interests – especially with regard to the European Union’s interest in the resolution of the ‘Cyprus problem’. It is of also significace that the next biannual exhibition of Manifesta will be held in Nicosia in 2006.
“Leaps of Faith” was however, compromised. The works are selected from Cyprus, Israel, England, South Africa, Mexico, Romania Bosnia and Croatia, with no sustained focus on the European / Asian threshold, even though the curators state “This means exploring the parameters of the island’s unique geographic position – being positioned as it is, between three continents, and situated within a region marked by ongoing political conflicts”. No representation from the whole of North Africa, and Akram Zaatari from Lebanon as the only artist from an Arab country, his work referred to in Erden Kosova’s catalogue essay as operating on “the human level of life and personal stories”, erasing what is at stake in the maintenance of the false distinction between public and “private, precisely what Zaatari’s work embodied – through his collaboration with a photo shop owner in Nicosia. This is a work continuous with his history of engagement with the frisson of the archive – especially so in relation to his work with the Arab Image Foundation.
The largest collection of works mounted in one place was the Mõsõrlõzade Center at Ataturk Square, in Turkish Cypriot Nocisia. Transformed into a white cube, it included the more significant works in the exhibition. Sigalit Landau’s video “Barbed Hoola”, (2001) – a woman’s torso inscribed with spinning barbed wire around her waist, disappearing, and re-inscribing her body via the temporal twist in the looping of the video – the horizon of pain on her body echoed by the sea to sky horizon behind her. As in “Dead Sea” (2005) and with searing ambivalence she regards the beauty of the image, along with both the weightlessness and the weight of significance of the sea as an illusory border: Sarap Kanay’s “Connections/Bizler” hangs a selection of photographs from the ceiling – her ongoing documentation of Black African Cypriots, that insists upon their presence in both Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities.
Site specificity is the stated model for this project – pretty much usurped in the discourse now for a consideration of situations, or situational aesthetics – either way it is here that clarity was required. The curatorial intention to locate the exhibition “in the heavily charged site of the so-called Green Line – in the abandoned buildings and on the street”, and to “spill into public spaces and venues on both sides of the city” (website), however underestimated these sites for the fullness of their psychic import. These are not spaces but places owned by both Turkish and Greek Cypriots, not abandoned so much as full with the historical signification of the violence of displacement. Yet in the context of the curatorial statement this becomes a dramatic trope – inflected with hyperbole. “…it is through the porous entity (of the barricade) that ›Leaps of Faith‹ …infiltrates” (Gregos and all following quotes from essays). There were works in the Cypriot media – photographs by Akram Zaatari and Dan Perjovschi’s drawings that are claimed in the catalogue essay (Gregos) as a satirical attack on the materialism of Greek Cypriots – I couldn’t find these works. Sigilit Landau’s “Rule Brittania” and Kendell Geers “THIS I SNOT AMERICA” are two of the few works that recognise the presence of Britain and the US in Cyprus prior to the war – that split Cyprus – and remain: Landau’s use of a British motif of a soccer field with discarded, airless balls, caught by barbed wire in the goal posts, is cruel stasis, embedding Britain within this history. Geer’s Large neon sign slips through and reveals some of the operations of censorship. Yet Marc Bijl’s installation of a wall of concert speakers set up to blast out “I love Status Quo” near the Ledra Palace checkpoint was silent when I was there (the soldiers guarding it removed the tape). Marc Bijl’s poster in the “Leaps of Faith” office window (inside of Ledra Palace checkpoint) in a reprise of the Sex Pistols cut up poster style reads,“Never mind the Politics Here come the Curators”. I understand it was not part of “Leaps of Faith” however given site specificity and the nervousness by the curators in relation to the omnipresent political discourse, what is its status within the project – other than a badly missed encounter with satire? A statement by the curators reiterated in many of the reviews with regard to the paucity of relations between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, has a inexcusable metaphorical function: “They share only a sewage system” inscribes Cypriots into an economy of no value with all difference and complexity collapsed, the curators should be reminded that “Others are the unsilvered mirror where the other looks at himself” (Jabes). Further sound bites frame this exhibition that do little to address the aporia that inhabits Cyprus, “the last divided city in Europe” is not so much critically addressed but rhetorically deployed as a promotional statement (just as it is on the Municipality of Nicosia website), and do we not consider Jerusalem divided, or Iraq etc.
Why was there no attempt to establish a theoretical frame that could encounter the theories that already circulate in the context of contemporary art in Nicosia? Erden Kosova’s catalogue essay does momentarily articulate something of this context but it is not followed through. Four Cypriot artists were included: as well as Sarap Kanay is Hussein Chalayan’s failed layering of critical meaning over his more established commercial interests and the surprisingly empty re-signification of traffic signs as the support of the text “Remember Me” by Panayotis Michael. The title of Katarina Attalides succeeds in itself: Legislated Nostalgia/Now Denial There is an art scene in Cyprus, however tentative it is and however much it is need of discussion – found in, say, the critical tenacity of the work that has been undertaken by the art scene in Lebanon – another city and culture that lives with the effects of an explicit division.
The curators deny the mediation of their own experience. In her essay Gregos’ describes her engagement with taxi drivers “Do you cross to the other side? … Of course I do! I buy my cigarettes there… its cheaper… why should I give my money to the thieves here”. Followed by a similar but inverted story to which Gregos concludes “pretty much sum up the paradoxical, contradictory, bizarre situation that is (divided) Cyprus”. Well it doesn’t. Kosova’s text similarly begins “Being chastised by a mayor…being caught by a UN army officer while filming a forbidden zone…. I began to feel like a naughty high school trouble maker… obviously because of the damn context…” Is this the result of a curatorial loss of nerve i.e. that they will be unable to resist the phantom presence of real politic. And Gregos again, “Last but by no means least, we hope that Leaps of Faith has offered … a possibility for conceiving the moment when Cyprus will no longer be a prisoner of history and its past, and will move forward based on a vision for the future”.
This project was not so much site specific; rather it appears that the place itself got in the way. Instead of the soporific reference to ruins and shelled houses, the Cypriot’s past is their present, palpably. With regard to our inhabitation of the present Irigaray proposes, ‘…to project our current versions of ourselves into the future would be to arrest change, to see the future as an alternative version of the past. Such a future would be closed to the possibilities of new social or ethical forms still to be invented’.2
- Edmund Jabes, "A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Book," Wesleyan University Press,1993 p3
- The Irigaray Reader, quoted in intro. Margaret Whitford, ed. Margaret Whitford, Oxford Blackwell, 1991
- This text was originally published in Camera Austria, issue 91, 2005
- Event Dates: Nicosia, 13.5 – 29.5.2005
Denise Robinson is an independent writer and curator living in London.