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Jananne Al-Ani: The Visit
Emily Pethick on Jananne Al-Ani's The Visit, first published to accompany Art Now: Jananne Al-Ani at Tate Britain, London, 4 February - 10 April 2005.

Since the mid 1990s Jananne Al-Ani has developed a body of video and photographic work that has revolved around narrative, history and story-telling and has often looked at Western representations of the Middle East. She has regularly used her mother and her three sisters, as well as herself, as performers. Their relationship to each other is never explicit, but their striking resemblance to one another and compelling intimacy has become a consistent motif in her work.

In response to the clich├ęd, exoticised depictions of women in late-nineteenth century Orientalist photography and painting, Al-Ani's photographic work has employed the visual motif of the veil to confront Western preconceptions of Middle Eastern society. In one series, Untitled 1996, Al-Ani showed herself, her mother and sisters sitting in a row, veiled in varying degrees, ranging from fully exposed to fully covered. While the veil appears and disappears, the focus remains on the women's eyes, and the powerful, confrontational nature of their stare, highlighting the way in which both male and female gazes are implicated by the veil.

Al-Ani's videos have often explored narratives based on memories and family histories, creating complex, cryptic dialogues that are played out by the five women in scripted vignettes. In A Loving Man 1996-99 the women play a memory game in which they recount a story constructed from different phrases gathered from each woman's account of their relationship to an absent man, combining them to reveal a tangled portrait of a troubled separation.

Presented in Art Now, Al-Ani's The Visit 2004 is a video installation in two parts. Projected onto a large floating screen, Muse opens with a shimmering heat haze that disperses to reveal an isolated man restlessly pacing over an empty patch of barren, windy desert. Dressed in a smart suit, the man appears as a kind of apparition, seemingly displaced in the wide, open landscape, which shows no other signs of human presence. His movements are captured in seven short sequences, filmed over the course of one day, the passage of time marked by the gradual setting of the sun and the lengthening of his shadow. The creeping darkness and the frustrating repetition of his directionless movements create a distinct air of melancholy.

Behind a partition wall Echo presents the 'talking heads' of four women on separate screens, each speaking in an emotional, impassioned manner. The individual dialogues are played simultaneously, layered over one-another to create a muddled murmuring, which prevents the viewer from grasping one single thread. Occasional, isolated phrases pierce through the chatter, offering clues to the unravelling of the situation, conveying an abstract impression of loss and disappointment resulting from a visit that they all refer to. The story never evolves into complete sense, and while the anecdotal fragments seem to link the women to the mysterious man in the desert, no concrete relationship ever comes to light.

The juxtaposition of Muse and Echo creates a dichotomy between male and female space. Viewed from afar, the man's inhabitation of the transitory landscape of the desert gives him an apparent sense of freedom, but his space is controlled by the fixed viewpoint of the camera. The arid patch of wilderness becomes a stage across which he repeatedly performs, and eventually appears trapped. In contrast, the female subjects are presented on a more domestic, intimate scale. Filmed up close, they speak frankly and directly to the camera in a relaxed, informal manner. The documentary-like quality comes across as natural next to the staged cinematic grandeur of Muse. While the women express the story from their perspective, the man is not given a voice.

The desert itself is frequently depicted by Westerners as a magical, exotic, empty space. In Muse Al-Ani counteracts this by portraying her subject not in the idealised, romantic sweeping sand dunes that are usually associated with Western ideas of the desert, but in a generic, stony, dusty terrain. The film was in fact shot in the Middle East - a landscape that has become familiar to Westerners as the backdrop to military action, often seen in aerial views in the reportage of the two Gulf wars. In her essay Acting Out' Al-Ani describes the absence of the body in these representations:

Through the portrayal of the population, the culture and, crucially, the landscape of the Middle East, [the news reportage] revealed that the nineteenth-century Orientalist stereotype of the Arab and the desert remained firmly embedded in Western consciousness. The site of the war was shown to be a desert, a place with no history and no population - an empty space, a blank canvas.

Al-Ani's Muse can in some ways be seen as humanising the desert by inserting a figure into the landscape.

In earlier works Al-Ani's explorations of the symbolic use of the veil highlighted it as an interface between public and private space, contrasting the exposure to the real with the realm of the imaginary that opens up once something is hidden from view. There is also an aspect of veiling in the way that Al-Ani tantalises the viewers of her work with the truth. Fragments of reality linger in the background, such as the involvement of her family, and in the case of The Visit, her choice of a location that has complex associations. Similarly, the warmth and candour of her sisters' performances make it difficult to believe that they are not acting out their own story. She subverts narratives by layering and dramatisation, which distance the truth and create a complex sense of ambiguity that blurs fact and fiction, never exposing the full picture. What her work does reveal is a powerful sense of the difficulties of family relationships, and the human consequences of war. Counteracting the often brash nature of media reportage, these lyrical works demonstrate how personal narratives and shared stories can accrue wider significance.

Emily Pethick
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