Saturday, December 29, 2012

Shadow Sites: Recent Work by Jananne al-Ani

Where: Sackler Gallery

When: through February 10, 2013

This show is a combination of still photographs and two videos.  Al-Ani's work focuses on exploring photography's claim to objectivity, and how people's perceptions of other people or other places are shaped by what they see in photographs.  In 1991, during the first Gulf War, the media portrayed the Middle East as one vast desert.  Obviously, there is a lot of sand in the Middle East, but that's not all there is.  Was it easier for those of us watching from the United States to forget the human cost of this conflict because we didn't really see much of it on TV?  I remember thinking at the time that the depictions of the missiles made them look like video games.

Al-Ani was inspired by this incomplete media coverage of the 1991 war, as well as photographs from the Ernst Herzfeld Papers, which are held in the archives of the Freer/Sackler to create video works examining widely held views of the Middle East.  The photographs in the first room of the show are from the archives.  They depict a striking but desolate landscape, and show very few people.  From these photos, Westerners got the idea that the Middle East was nothing but an arid desert, inhabited by only a few nomads.

The next two rooms contain al-Ani's videos.  The first one is entitled "Guide and Flock."  It's footage of a man in Arab dress walking down a road.  He's carrying a bag,  but we never see what's in it.  There's an inset in the screen, playing another video, this one of a street with a flock of sheep standing beside it.  Every few seconds, traffic goes by.  I'm not entirely sure what this video is trying to show - that there are people and industry in the Middle East, not just dusty roads and sheep?

The second video is "Shadow Sites II."  This is a series of aerial photographs.  The camera is at a distance from them to begin, then gradually moves in closer.  Just as you're about to get a good sense of what's on the ground, a new aerial image appears, and the process begins again.  I watched for a while, but frankly, got a bit tired of never seeing what's in the photo.  Perhaps that's the point?

I won't say I didn't like this show - I just couldn't quite figure out the point.  I was glad to be reminded of my reservations about the first Gulf War coverage, something to keep in mind when I see war coverage today.  Other than that, I'm at a bit of a loss.

Verdict: Not sure that this is worth a trip on its own to the Sackler, unless you're a great fan of aerial photography.

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