Bones' Beat: Emily Jacir at the Guggenheim

This week Bones, intrepid art-world raconteur, visits The Hugo Boss Prize 2008: Emily Jacir at the Guggenheim. It's the international hunk strikeforce vs. deep, sustained engagement in the life of a very mysterious man...

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Courtesy the Guggenheim

Emily Jacir is the latest recipient of the Hugo Boss prize, a bi-annual award with a $100,000 kitty and accompanying solo exhibition at the Guggenheim, a show which is presently nestled in the fifth floor annex of the emphatically restored old swirly-museum. Jacir is a quiet and mercurial art-world figure, less than a decade deep into her career, and her Boss show rejects the obvious opportunity presented for leverage, debutante-style, as a headliner on the New York art stage and in the media that starts here. In fact, the only character in sharp focus for this exhibition is Wael Zuaiter, a Palestinian intellectual killed by Israeli secret service agents following the murder of eleven Israeli athletes and a German police officer by the militant group Black September at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Considered--by murkily obtained intelligence--to have been connected with the terrorist plot, Zuaiter was the first victim for the international hunk strikeforce of Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, and Matthieu Kassovitz in Steven Spielberg's explosive quasi-historical 2005 caper Munich. He was dealt with swiftly in Rome at the beginning of the team's thrilling and gorgeous vengeance run, years and two solid celluloid hours before Bana could return home to stand pointedly beneath the twin towers, be haunted by the lives he'd taken while furiously shagging his wife, and feel broken and crazy. Munich's unequivocally evil Zuaiter served as a tidy plot point, the one that got the hero's narrative arc and the boom-crash-kaboom middle third of the picture going. Emily Jacir's Zuaiter would not have made a very good movie villain.

Jacir's Zuaiter is conjured in the first part of the exhibition, Material For A Film (2004-present), through the material evidence that remains of his life. The artist--informed by an ongoing friendship with Zuaiter's longtime girlfriend, Janet Venn-Brown--shows the intellectual as his friends might have seen him. The covers of the paperbacks Zuaiter kept in his living room are photographed and tacked to the wall in a grid, Genet and Eliot and Pound and Kierkegaard and folk tales and pocket histories, nothing too crazy, the bread and butter of someone who spent most of their waking hours reading something or other. There's a photograph of a coin with a hole drilled through it that Zuaiter kept on a string. He needed the disc to operate the lift in his apartment building, and evidently had a habit of mislaying it. Bits of his record collection play quietly out of speakers embedded in the wall. A ten-second clip of Zuaiter walking silently across the back of a shot in The Pink Panther says everything that can be said of days when the poorer, younger man used to get occasional work as a Cinecittà extra. Jacir's own snapshots of Zuaiter's Rome--as captured on meandering walks and talks with Venn-Brown--have been processed at the size and almost-sticky super gloss favored by drugstore photo labs, then pinned to the wall, without fuss. The presentation is not precious, and the narrative is loose. Jacir's Material is naturally raw, laid out with as little editorial weight as is possible.

Many knowledgeable people passionately protest Zuaiter's murder, and scorn talk of his perceived ties to violent political radicalism. Material For A Film (Performance), the second part of the exhibition, recognizes and magnifies a single detail of Zuaiter's final moments. To draw attention to the twelfth .22 bullet that didn't hit him, lodging instead in the copy of the Arabic folk epic One Thousand and One Nights tucked in his breast pocket, Jacir shot .22 slugs into 1,000 books. Blank inside and white all over, with what look like single caterpillar holes clean through their fronts, these books line all the walls of a tall room, up to the ceiling and down to the floor, propped open just enough to stand up on their white shelves. The work is cold, again, just as austere as the catalogued effects of Zuaiter's life, with no politics and no noise. There's poetry, of course, to be eked from the display, odes of tribute to men and women of letters and requiems to stories untold, but it's low-impact. Jacir's deep, sustained engagement in the life of this man tacitly suggests profound admiration and defense--of course it does--but she will not explicitly tell of these sentiments, and her work rarely attempts to actively sell them.

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As a journalist, I was particularly taken with a blown-up photograph, in the first half of the exhibition, showing Zuaiter being interviewed by three Kuwaiti reporters. They are leaning in, keening their ears to the man to hear each intonation, chins dropped respectfully; they grip pens, primed, over notebooks. Zealots do not render their audience as vulnerable as this. Their instinctive communal stance of openness spoke to me as powerful evidence for the good heart and responsible soul of Wael Zuaiter. Suddenly I was sold. An artist in overheated times will disarm, not arm, an audience. Zuaiter and Jacir are kin, and their shared example of compassion and temperance provide a glorious opportunity to exercise trust and pay close attention. It doesn't matter that no questions have been answered.-Bones

The Hugo Boss Prize 2008: Emily Jacir, as this exhibition is called, runs until April 15th. Do not miss Sam Hsieh's year-long 1980-1981 performance piece, where the artist didn't sleep for more than an hour, that is expertly re-framed on the top floor. Or, indeed, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela's Dream House, an amniotic meditation chamber that carries a warning at the front for people who have a hard time expanding their minds (I may have imagined this). The Guggenheim is filled with gifts at present.

Bones is rattled, still, from the Armory Show, and the fog of alienation that drifted through its aisles. Next week, he'll report back from D'Amelio Terras Gallery in Chelsea, where an exhibition that juxtaposes contemporary stars from 1992 with the young gallery talent of 2009 is rigged for a serious opportunity to take stock, critically, and figure out what the next 15 years might hold.


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