Shadow Sites: Recent Work by Jananne al-Ani

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Shadow Sites: Recent Work by Jananne al-Ani photo
Jananne Al-Ani
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Editorial Review

From a distance, humanity vanishes
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, September 7, 2012

Landscape is the ostensible subject of “Shadow Sites: Recent Work by Jananne Al-Ani.” The London-based Iraqi Irish artist’s exhibition at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery centers on a nearly nine-minute video that lends the show its title. Shot by a camera fixed to the wing of a small plane that was able to swoop in from 5,000 feet to 100 feet fairly quickly, the wall-size work features a sequence of haunting images of the Jordanian countryside -- crop fields, agricultural buildings, archaeological ruins and old World War I trenches, among other, less-identifiable terrain and structures.

Al-Ani’s camera drifts, taking us over land that at times resembles the surface of the moon. Just as she zooms in on features that might tell us what we’re looking at, she cuts to the next site, tantalizingly. The technique prevents the video from becoming documentary or reportage. It’s a way of looking that feels abstract, aestheticized and a bit cold.

This seemingly clinical nature is completely intentional. Accompanying the aerial video is a second video work on a smaller screen. Called “Excavation,” the 21 / 2-minute loop is an equally remote but almost uncomfortably close-up view of a line of ants scurrying in and out of a hole. The ones exiting bear grains of sand, which they dutifully deposit on the anthill surrounding the hole. Empty-handed, they return underground for more.

So what’s Al-Ani’s point? Not, as it turns out, the beauty of landscape (although her images do have a surreal appeal). It isn’t our resemblance to ants, either.

The inspiration for this body of work dates to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when the artist became obsessed with the aerial footage of warfare being broadcast around the world. That footage presented something terrible happening on the ground in a way that allowed viewers to remain detached from what they were seeing.

What was missing from those news images -- and what’s missing here -- are people.

Evidence of human activity -- roads, walls, buildings -- is everywhere. One of Al-Ani’s shots features an array of pipelike armatures that resemble giant W’s. But the human body is conspicuously absent.

That’s her point. Obliquely, but with a strong left hook, Al-Ani’s show offers a bruising critique of the lens through which the Western world all too often views the East. That is, as a place defined more often by its land and natural resources -- oil, for instance -- than by the people who live there.

That’s driven home in a second room-size installation by Al-Ani. Called “The Guide and the Flock,” it consists of two discrete videos. The first, projected onto a large wall, features a man slowly walking away from the camera down a desolate road. Although wearing a traditional keffiyeh on his head, he carries a plastic shopping bag, as if he has just stepped out of a 7-Eleven. (Note: He doesn’t disappear in the distance; Al-Ani “erases” him through editing, when he’s only a hundred or so feet down the road.)

The second video, shown on a tiny monitor inset in the middle of the first screen, features grazing sheep. After about a minute, the bucolic image is abruptly interrupted by automobile traffic crossing in front of the camera. The sudden roar comes as a bit of a shock.

Whether you’re looking at something too closely or from too great a distance, Al-Ani seems to say, it’s easy to lose context. That’s a message that, though delivered softly, resonates.

The story behind the work
By Michael O’Sullivan
Friday, September 7, 2012

Jananne Al-Ani traces the spark for “Shadow Sites” to the aerial videos of the Gulf War. But in doing background research in the archives of the Sackler Gallery, the artist reached back even further, studying the photographs of Ernst Herzfeld, a German archaeologist who worked in Iran, Iraq and Syria in the early part of the 20th century.

Several of Herzfeld’s striking panoramic desert scenes also are on view, in an introductory gallery that’s part of “Shadow Sites.”

Though shot from the ground, the photographs of archaeological sites share the sense of clinical detachment seen in Al-Ani’s aerial images. Unlike hers, however, Herzfeld’s pictures occasionally feature people. But they’re often so far away that it’s hard to see them without a magnifying glass.

In one pair of before-and-after images by Herzfeld -- depicting the ancient Persian city of Ctesiphon’s only surviving monument, the Taq-I Kisra -- we can see retouched and original versions of the same scene, revealing how Herzfeld eliminated his own prominent shadow, cast by the early-morning sun, from the foreground.

Is this where Al-Ani got her idea about the erasure of the human body from the Middle Eastern landscape (or, at the very least, her show’s hauntingly poetic title)?