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Marcus VerhagenClick here to Print this Page
Jananne Al-Ani
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
Marcus Verhagen is an art historian and critic.
Still from Cradle by Jananne Al-Ani, 2001
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