In a recent post I mentioned that I’d visited the reopened San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. With it’s new addition the Museum is large and a strategy was needed for this first visit. I decided to ride the elevator up to the top (seventh) floor and then thread my way through the galleries, floor by floor, until I was back out on the street.
A great plan but there was just too much to see. Five hours later and my feet hurt and I realized I couldn’t do even a cursory visit in one day. I kept getting slowed down.
The first thing that slowed me down that day was a video installation, Shadow Site II by the artist Jananne Al-Ani. I entered a large darkened room to the sound of a dull hum. Projected on the far wall from floor to ceiling was a mesmerizing sepia-toned video of slowly dissolving desert scenes. I was seduced by the formal beauty of the work. The aerial views of the land were shot straight down, no horizon lines or oblique angles to help with orientation, instead bold lines dissolving into enigmatic shapes.
What was I seeing? Slowly, I began to recognize hints of a human hand on the land – a line made by an old fortress, the structure of a wall. There was a clear tension between the formal aspects of the work – the way Al-Ani used the elements and principles of design – and the cultural references that emerged in the video.
There was something familiar about the images but I had a hard time figuring out what it was. Only in retrospect did I realize that the photography owed a lot to contemporary war and surveillance imagery shot by drones and fighter pilots. This is of course Al-Ani’s intent.
Shadow Sites II is the third part of a trilogy of films, the Aesthetics of Disappearance: A Land Without People, made by Al-Ani. In her earlier work she investigated the representation of the body, specifically the orientalist fascination with an exotic Middle East that had little grounding in reality. Viewing media coverage of the 1991 Gulf War she saw these same fantasies applied to a supposedly barren landscape. In Shadow Sites I and II the land is slowly revealed to be anything but barren.
Al-Ani explains: “The prominent role of digital technology in the 1991 Desert Storm campaign was a watershed in the history of warfare and changed the way war was to be seen in the future. Within hours of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Western media machine had mobilized its forces and set its sights firmly on the region. Through the portrayal of the population, the culture and, crucially, the landscape of the Middle East, it 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.” And as a blank site it would be open to colonization and occupation.
To counter these beliefs Al-Ani has shown how the land has been occupied over millennia by different tribes, never empty. In the videos you see “…prehistoric remains, via Nabataean and Roman sites, to World War I trench systems, to present-day roads, buildings and agricultural developments.” Shadow Site II uses high-resolution still-images that dissolve from image to image in a long, continuous zoom. As Al-Ani states, “the film suggests the vantage point of a Predator drone or a cruise missile and replicates the action of ‘locking onto a target’ in anticipation of a strike.”
If you live near San Francisco, or plan on visiting soon, I highly recommend you see Al-Ani’s work. For those of you who are just beginning to study art and design pay particular attention to the way she uses the elements and principles of design to support her content.
Below is a short excerpt from Shadow Sites II. If you’re reading this through email click here to see the video. I need to mention that this video was shot by a museum visitor and consequently doesn’t capture the high production values of the original. The diagonal black bands at the bottom and right of the image are not part of the original piece.