Skip to main content
Artists  
Introduction 

< Return to artist's essay

Rosalind Nashashibi

By Amna Malik

1. The recto and verso of representation

Since 1999 Rosalind Nashashibi has been engaged in a process of 'husbanding melancholy' in short 16mm films that create an aesthetic of the everyday.

Nashashibi is an artist living in an age that endlessly recycles the past, prompting her to move away from representation to privilege experience as the locus of consciousness. She does not deny the scripted and coded nature of the image but camouflages her visual repertoire in the experiential. In her films the melancholic drift of time passing places the viewer in a position of experiencing the present, but this momentary sense of the 'now' is located in a space mediated through the pulsating surface of film. The result is the 'not-quite-then': an experience of time flowing at the moment before it becomes memory or the past. The indexical condition of film as light grafted onto celluloid, that pulsates with the colours of another era, inserts a warmth, one that looks and smells like the 1970s, into the digital consciousness of hard flat shiny surfaces that constitute modern life in the twenty first century. Nashashibi takes her inspiration from old paperback covers, the lime yellow walls of University Libraries. The focus on the visual expression of drama in Fassbinder, Pasolini and Bresson and a refusal of the conventions of plot and narrative is of seminal importance. In her work, there is almost always a fascination in capturing the immediate past: a modernity that has just become history, made visible through the cheap brightness of colours in the commercial printing of posters and books and postcards that emerge within public consciousness; colours that are not unique enough to be vintage or popular enough to be recycled as retro chic.

2.

Nashashibi's films convey the not-yet past as the viewer's awareness of the disappearance of time in the present.

This movement between the 'now' of time flowing before my eyes that becomes the 'not-quite then' is inspired by print culture, newspaper cuttings, posters and photographs etc. It refuses the readymade nature of experience: moments when people and places take on the appearance of so many films, photographs, paintings, poses in popular culture and high art that are now so familiar as to be part of our conceptual furniture. Like other artists who have come to prominence in the late 1990's such as Marinne Hugonnier and Pierre Huyghe, Nashashibi favours the slow pace of time unfolding as the new velocity. She shoots her films on a Bolex camera that dictates their slow pace: each shot lasts more or less twenty seconds in duration and is repeated over and over sometimes for three minutes, at other times for twelve. Some rare films like Hreash House are longer at twenty minutes, but all of them create a sense of measured rhythm and steady pace, that successively accumulate a feeling of drift and aimlessness that nurses solitude.

3.

Nashashibi's chosen subjects are communal spaces in which a shared activity, interest or goal temporarily bring different kinds of people together; thus enacting some of the humanist ideals of civic duty that created public buildings like hospitals, university libraries, leisure centres.

Even if that humanist intent has disappeared from the official agenda of public life, in her films those spaces continue to function as contact zones between otherwise different strata of society.

Hers is a benign view of civic duty and the architecture it produced in the modernism of the 50's and 60's that contrasts with the erosion of community and society under Thatcherism and the present-day privatisation of public space. Working intuitively within this repertoire of images internalised within collective consciousness, she uses the durational nature of film and editing to select only those moments just before the self-consciousness of being seen and represented enters the people in the spaces she films. This is a very telling characteristic of her concern with the recto of the image, the reverse side of 'being-in-the world' that Heidegger's calls the world as picture that has developed along a certain trajectory. Instead of the recto, she gives us the verso of representation but without the drama that makes the viewer slide from one into the other. An example of this can be found in Steve McQueen's Bear (1993) when the two male wrestlers move from iconic images of boxers to simply two friends horsing around; or in Fiona Tan's use of archival footage that shifts from African natives, posing for a photograph as docile subjects of colonialism, to mocking children laughing and jostling irreverently in front of the camera. By refusing this dramatic strategy, Nashashibi honours the agency of her subjects as active citizens in the world and reinvests the private within the public with an ethical purpose that refuses the cynicism of an older post-68 generation.

4. The Refusal of Quotation

Nashashibi's development from Three (1999) to Open Day (2001) is an important move away from a post-modern quotation towards an experiential engagement with the everyday.

It has its roots in her earliest experiments with film at Sheffield Hallam University, where she began to incorporate found footage from the mainstream news with her own panoramic shots of the rooftops of Sheffield; the result was an erasure of difference between the ready-made and the 'original'. This ease of movement between quoted and created visions of the world was to be developed further in Open Day but initially took on a different form in Three (1999). Shot on video in an empty parking lot in Los Angeles it reveals her sensibility as a painter. A scene in Fassbinder's Effi Briest (1974) is restaged in a sequence of shots from different angles that become a series of poses and gestures, carefully edited and placed into repetition with each other leaving the viewer with a choreography of temporality experienced as the repetition of a single moment. Open Day (2001) is the result of a more intuitive process of filmmaking, the viewer sees commuters on trains, people rock climbing in a leisure centre, waiting for a performance at the Barbican, or busy behind computer terminals in the offices of a successful dot.com company. The title references those occasions when private spaces or public institutions allow visitors to see behind the scenes. The camera angles of the exterior of buildings and glimpses of interior shots in which corners of rooms come into view; or the oval structures of the interior of a tube train, all of these in different ways reference paintings like Francis Bacon's angular saturated interiors or mass observation documentaries of the 1930s. Representation emerges as the sudden shock of recognition within the flickering pulsating fabric of the film's surface of the already seen and known. With its insertion of the past, into the structure of time unfolding now in the present Open Day becomes characteristic of her signature style. Here found music expands the rhythm of everyday gestures but changes in later films to develop a rhythm of sound with considerable originality and sophistication.

5. From the Musical to the Acoustic

Nashashibi's development from the use of music to sound's relationship to the moving image can be seen in the contrast between The States of Things in 2000 and the two films she made in 2003 Blood and Fire and Humaniora ; all are set in communal spaces yet the earliest of these conveys a very different sensibility.

In some ways it is an exploration in form, Nashashibi learnt to process film in The States of Things, but it is also a polemical critique of Shirin Neshat's highly emotive and arguably orientalist representations of the 'other'. Neshat's technically sophisticated and hence visually seductive films convey a mastery and hence a concealment of the process of illusion. By contrast States is an eroded visual and musical 'collage' that slowly unveils itself. The opening shots of a grainy black and white film are washed over by a high pitched and wavering voice: it is the famed Egyptian diva Um Kulthoum singing a love song In Hali Fi Hawaha Agab recorded in the 1920's. The emotional power of music to condition one's environment and how one interprets what one sees confuses the impressions of the unfolding scene. This strong sense of displacement gradually shifts when the surface moves from a collection of disparate shades of grey and settles into recognisable forms and with it the realisation that is in fact a jumble sale. Music acts as a veil of representation evoking tourist images, Hollywood films and numerous examples of 'orientalist' paintings. A souk seems more exotic because it is located in an imaginary realm that is distant as much in time as in space, but is essentially the same as a jumble sale.

Nashashibi's polemical use of found music to cloak the habitual as different is later abandoned in favour of the hustle and bustle of sound that weaves in and out of shots.

In Humaniora and Blood and Fire, sound creates a different layer, a texture to the films' durée, unsettling one's cognitive experience of time. Often nothing seems to happen but the rustle of leaves in the wind and the distant hum of traffic forces an increased state of attention on the acoustic levels of representation. Nashashibi's creation of an alternative 'musical' composition in which time and sound coalesce into a rhythm within the fabric of film, establishes a quieter build up of visual and acoustic intensity. It offers a contemporary echo to Koulthum's technique of shifting between the performed and improvised to bring her audience to a state of ecstasy.

6. Husbanding Melancholy

In Midwest, Midwest: Field and Dahiet Al Bareed, District of the Post Office all made in 2002 Nashashibi's signature style in which melancholia, the inability to come to terms with loss, emerges as the persistence of the past in the present.

In these films rhythm creates a sense of aimless drift that lies somewhere between the Marxist idea of dead time and 'ennui'. Both these states are modes of temporality that enter historical consciousness in the late 19th Century as an adjunct to a moment of advanced industrial capitalism. In Nashashibi's films they disconnect one in different ways from the continuum of unfolding modernity to create archipelagos of the experience of solitude.

In Midwest migrant workers hunched together over tables in a café eat wearily while the sounds of a distant television mingles with their muted conversation. The brief respite from their labours rapidly filled by the battle between competing desires for food and sleep is not sufficient to convey the illusion of an autonomous subject at leisure. These are not black holes in capitalism's parcelling out of time by clock and calendar but moments when the temporary halting of labour allows the consciousness of its endless onward flow to be experienced as the dead weight of exhaustion. As they are experienced in Gaby's Café, a warm, lit, bustling oasis of communal activity in the midst of an urban wasteland, the contrast of moods suggests these workers are also part of a wider socio-economic and cultural network than their alienated labour offers. In a similar fashion, the flotsam and jetsam of unemployed men congregating outside the welfare office or seated at the side of a road, watching cars pass by, create a sense of time drifting and becoming impossibly extended. The passivity of the social conditions of men with too much work and not enough work subtly transfer themselves to the viewer through the slow rhythm and pace of the film.

7.

As her practice develops these archipelagos become phenomenological encounters with objects that invite solitary contemplation like the reverberating patterns on a pair of seats in Juniper Set; or the armature of a pair of swings transformed into an absurdly comical presence, like a contemporary Ubu Roi, in Park Ambassador.

This shift occurs partly because of her sensibility as a painter that encourages her to consider form and pattern, the arrangement of colours and shapes in collages and prints, taken, for instance, from a fragment of a Picasso print from a book cover, to become an expanded space of reflection.

We see the results of this oscillation between the moving image and works on paper in Hreash House: a film located in the home of a Palestinian family who live in an Arab Palestinian town in Israel and are labelled as Arab Israelis although they see themselves as Palestinian. Nashashibi establishes a synchrony between dual visual economies that marks a further integration of her practice. Not only is there the coherent singular focus on one site that was so successfully explored in District of the Post Office, Midwest and Midwest: Field but now there is also a monomania that she tentatively began to explore in signs and colours in Humaniora and Blood and Fire. In Hreash House the viewer gradually is made aware of the insistent focus on elaborate decorative patterns, whether textiles or floral arrangements, or the symmetry of food being prepared. These moments build up a portrait of an almost obsessive attention to formal arrangements. These patterns echo and infiltrate another, different, structure that Nashashibi is drawn to: the network of an extended family system that creates a beehive of activity that is increasingly rare within the nuclear family unit.

This exchange between formal systems and communities of people is a strategy she is currently developing in Eyeballing. The new film is a portrait of New York that juxtaposes NYPD cops in uniform loitering outside their TriBeCa precint, and a series of faces that the viewer is encouraged to discover in Nashashibi's apartment and the urban fabric of the city. In this manner, she passes back and forth between representations of the city-state, the actual material city, and a representation of its inhabitants. By doing so, she subtly alters what might seem to be examples of an unremarkable microcosm of life, lived according to the pleasures of familiar routine. Her films become occasions for significant moments of contemplation that insert the unknown into the well-known and hence reconfigure the landscape of everyday life.

Dr Amna Malik is a lecturer at the Slade School of Art. Her interests have centred on contemporary art and its engagement with debates over gendered identity and cultural differences.

< Return to artist's essay