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Jananne Al Ani - Profile

By Marcus Verhagen

1. Stories

Jananne Al-Ani tells stories of violence, separation and commonality. Not that she, or she alone, does the telling.

Her stories, for the most part, are shared. They are at once stories and histories-and they are jointly told. They are batted back and forth, repeated, puzzled over and refined. They attest not just to displacement and loss but also, in their collective telling, to the power of social and familial bonds. They tell of the need to reclaim history from the banalities of the media and to present it in the first person, singular or plural. And they suggest that stories play a part in articulating and cementing existing connections. In fact, the storytellers who feature in her work can appear so well attuned, so united in the business of remembering and recounting, that the viewer is occasionally left feeling uncomfortably like a gatecrasher.

Al-Ani, who is of mixed Iraqi and Irish parentage, regularly works with a cast of five, appearing alongside her mother and sisters in pieces that are formally severe but loosely choreographed, often allowing a measure of improvisation. And as the women play games, recount dreams, have their hair combed or just stare at the camera, the viewer is at once drawn in and kept at arm's length, fascinated by and excluded from the tacit communion and confident stage presence of the artist and her collaborators. The exclusion is at times pointed. The orientation of Al-Ani's figures, who generally face their audience, creates a vague sense of confrontation, as if the viewer were being held to account for his or her intrusion.

2. Veiling and Unveiling

In Veil (1997), a slide projection installation, five figures gaze out at us, some Veiled and some not.

As time passes, figures fade away and reappear in a slow and disorientating shuffle, while this or that veil occasionally melts away to reveal the face behind it, which is later covered again as the cycle continues. The piece recalls the texts and images of late nineteenth-century visitors to North Africa and the Middle East, writers, artists and ethnographers who went in search of "the Orient" and came back with documents that were framed to uphold existing fantasies of the exotic Other-of Eastern mysticism, secrecy and sensuality. The veil, of course, featured in their more licentious imaginings; it was central to the play of concealment and revelation in the work of, among others, the painter Jean-Léon Gérôme and the writer Pierre Loti.

Veil refers back to such narratives but short-circuits them through the number and orientation of the women, who return the viewer's look five times over, effectively reversing the relations of subject and object. The exposure of the women is not arranged for the secret delectation of the male viewer, as it was in Gérôme's paintings, for instance. On the contrary, their intermittent veiling and unveiling just serves to bind them together, while their unabashed outward gazes interpellate the audience, which finds itself looking at itself in the process of looking.

The piece says nothing about "the Orient", imagined or otherwise. Instead, it turns the spotlight on the viewer's motivation, on all the reasons he or she might have for looking. It hints at the confluence of willed apartness, covert power and prurience that directed the gaze of nineteenth-century visitors and continues to inform Western perspectives on the Arab world.

Outwardly simple, it is a dense and uncompromising work that examines the asymmetrical histories of former colonial and subject peoples and the role of such media as painting and photography in normalising and quietly perpetuating those asymmetries.

3. Games

Al-Ani calls on the same collaborators in a number of video installations, including She Said (2000) and A Loving Man (1996-1999).

In these works the women not only face their audience-they surround it. Both pieces were made to be shown on five monitors embedded in the wall of a darkened, circular chamber. And in both cases, the five women are playing a game-"Chinese Whispers" in She Said and a memory game involving the repetition and elaboration of a basic refrain in A Loving Man. The result in both pieces is an eerie theatricality, the figures looming out of the darkness as they play while the viewer, who is both in the circle and out of the loop, slowly swivels around to follow their moves.

In She Said as in A Loving Man, the game is a way of telling a non-linear story, a story that emerges through breaks, echoes and miscues. One round of "Chinese Whispers" closes with the sentence "His family is not on the map"; originally, we then learn, it was "Things in our family were not talked about". In another round, "Everything is censored" turns into "Everything fits together now". (The original sentences were culled from an interview with the artist's deceased aunt.)

The piece is not just the record of a game, but a séance without the mystical trappings and an accumulation of Freudian slips, an exercise in which the failures of communication are metaphors for loss, and for the brittleness of memory. But the lapses are part of the game and the game, of course, is collective. Remarkably, it underlines the ties between the five women even as they misunderstand one another, each misunderstanding implicitly revealing a shared-though possibly unacknowledged-insight.

4. Memory and Absence

A Loving Man has a stronger narrative impetus, but what emerges is not exactly a story, not even five stories woven together; it is, rather, a slow accretion of comments, in which the non sequitors and lulling, repetitive cadences are as telling as the comments themselves.

The game kicks off with the phrase "A loving man", spoken by the first player, which her neighbour then repeats before adding "He looked so young and optimistic once". And so it goes on for fifteen minutes, each player adding a new phrase after repeating the previous comments in sequence.

The man, clearly, was known to all five women, whose observations are by turns searching, dreamy and bitter as they look back over the years spent without him. Resentment is followed by longing, empathy by near-indifference; the rotating logic of the game leaves no room for spurious coherence. The shifts in tone are crucial-they confound the viewer's efforts to construct a streamlined narrative and point to differences between the five women, though those differences are soon obscured as the comments multiply.

What the piece suggests, among other things, is that the experience of loss is neither wholly internal nor entirely collective. The family or community is, in Al-Ani's work, a kind of echo chamber in which events continue to resonate over a period of years. The game, with its ever-longer repetitions, cleverly suggests the passing of time while hinting that some memories are never laid to rest (the closing phrase is "He has broken my heart"). After all, the players remember their lines. By the end the litany is a long one, but they barely miss a beat. According to the old cliché, time heals; A Loving Man suggests otherwise. But by using the format of the game, it anchors separation in the quotidian and avoids the pathos of the lament.

5. War and Peace

In much of her work, Al-Ani relies on this cast of five characters, using play and improvisation to stitch their memories together in tenuous narratives that alternately summon and sideline the viewer.

But the artist works on different registers, and in other media. Some of her pieces are provocatively simple, in appearance and realisation if not in effect. In Cradle (2001), pairs of hands appear out of the darkness to play Cat's Cradle, first proficiently and then, when one pair of hands gives way to another, with difficulty, the new player obviously struggling to master the game. The piece is outwardly laconic but speaks volumes on the rituals of belonging.

Other works are direct, even lacerating in their anger. Sounds of War (2003) was made for a show at the House of World Cultures in Berlin during the build-up to the conflict in Iraq; by a grimly appropriate coincidence, the show opened on the first day of the war. An audio piece, Sounds of War consists of a man counting from one to thirty with, after each numeral, a short recording of Second World War weaponry followed by canned applause or laughter.

The numeral-bombing-applause cycle is repeated thirty times over in memory of the first Gulf War, which officially lasted a month. The piece is a commentary, shot through with cold fury, on armed conflict, or rather on the media representation of war in countries that wage campaigns in distant places. It speaks of peoples who have no experience of military combat. Wars are fought on their behalf, but for them-for us, I should say-armed combat is in the first place a televised show, one of a number of more or less remote events that are beamed nightly into living rooms through cathode-ray tubes.

And there is another irony at play. The artist was responding not just to current events but also to the setting. The House of World Cultures was built by the United States for the International Building Exhibition of 1957; originally a congress hall, it was conceived as a site for international dialogue and funded by the Benjamin Franklin Foundation. Al-Ani's piece drew attention to the extraordinary disparity between the ideals which the States had once appeared to underwrite and the principles that currently guide its foreign policy.

Al-Ani's practice is a diverse one, but a few common themes and strategies stand out. Again and again, she tackles the issues of conflict, loss and displacement, but she tackles them in an allegorical mode, setting up theatrical situations in which personal traumas take on a broader historical resonance. She repeatedly implicates her audience, turning the experience of viewing into a reflexive and occasionally uncomfortable one. That is not to say that her work is austere or sermonising. It offers an array of sensory and intellectual pleasures, but those pleasures are made contingent on the viewer's awareness of his or her own liminal and occasionally compromised position in her dramas. Al-Ani has made a bracingly difficult and engaging body of work, showing in the process an uncommon faith in the continuing relevance of art as a means of historical and political illumination.

Marcus Verhagen is an art historian and critic.

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