Outside the Box — Modular Installations from Venice to Houston

[Bashir] Makhoul’s boxes are generic, near identical; they are not ‘found’ or reused but…manufactured to the required size. Square holes cut in the sides convert the boxes into representations of rudimentary dwellings…there is little concession to skill and no interest in detail. Indiscriminately stacked, the boxes grow into a cluster of houses, a refugee camp or some other improvised village thrown together…[T]he ad hoc arrangement suggests less planning, an absence of design, a more immediate response to the contours of available space…Makhoul’s boxes are not much to look at, though once stacked they can be easily mistaken for the kind of camp or village or even castle they resemble. In a curious way, then, they are successful as representations despite the indifference to craft or design…

– John Beck, “Between the Castle and the Village”

I found it ironic (but not surprising) to learn that Bashir Makhoul and Aissa Deebi, two Palestinian artists, were denied permission to call their exhibition the “Palestine Pavilion” by officials at the Venice Biennale. Not surprising, of course, because Palestinian artists lack a recognized state apparatus to confer official status upon them. Ironic, though, because perhaps the largest question looming over this year’s (and previous years’) Venice Biennale regards the utility and even the validity of organizing cultural exhibitions along nationalistic lines. I don’t mean to suggest that the exhibition was completely ignored and denied all legitimacy by the Venice Biennale–it is, in fact, listed in all official promotional materials–just under “Collateral Events” rather than “National Pavilions.”

“Only ‘legitimate,’ ‘recognized’ and ‘independent’ nations can have a proper pavilion at the Biennale,” write Ryan Bishop and Gordon Hon in the exhibition catalog, “and not what is called beautifully ‘a collateral event’.”

Collateral damage. Collateral event.

Co-curator, Rawan Sharaf, echoes Bishop and Hon’s observation, writing:

The Biennale’s regulations only provide space for “legitimate,” ‘recognized’ and ‘independent’ nations to have an official representation through a pavilion at the Biennale…Since Palestine has no such status, and fails to meet any of the official criteria, the exclusion of the Palestinian pavilion not only demonstrates a kind of denial of existence, but also correlates nations with the existence of their internationally recognized state.

Since I plan to write a whole, independent essay on the question of art in the service of nationalism, what that means, whether it’s even possible to represent something as complex and dynamic as a nation-state, and about the “Art World’s” perception of itself as Laputa (the floating island from Gulliver’s Travels), I will not go into too much detail here, but any discussion of Makhoul and Deebi’s exhibit, which they chose to call “Otherwise Occupied,” would be incomplete if it did not address the question of (stateless) nationhood. I feel compelled, also, to note that while these Palestinian artists were denied permission to label theirs a national pavilion, The Vatican was among the 10 states to host a national pavilion for the first time at this 55th Biennale.

Vatican, yes. Palestine, no.

“Just to be clear,” writes Sharaf’s co-curator, Bruce W. Ferguson, in his catalog essay, “this installation is the Not-The-Palestine Pavilion.”

The exhibition is neither entirely official nor unofficial. The exhibition is “affiliated” with the larger Venice Biennale project, but it has a quasi-legitimate standing that hasn’t been sanctioned by any state, least of all by a state which itself has no national standing. The exhibition is without pavilion; without a country; without normative status.

In this way, then, Makhoul’s cardboard village in the garden resembles not only Palestinian refugee camps–haphazard, unstable, and subject to others’ whimsy–but it makes an apt metaphor for the whole Palestinian (lack of) state–neither fully inside, nor fully outside the Biennale–in limbo. That the village is constructed from moving boxes implies a state of flux, a constant state of transition. That boxes are used as shelter by homeless people also draws a parallel between those without a home and those without a homeland. The care that the viewer must take to refrain from accidentally knocking the whole thing over serves as a constant reminder of the fragility of this very delicately balanced system. That the boxes are empty calls this passage to mind:

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being
but non-being is what we use.

from Chapter Eleven, *Tao Te Ching,* translated by Stephen Mitchell

Arriving in the lobby of the exhibition space, the viewer approaches a stack of brand new, unfolded and collapsed cardboard boxes. They bear no markings besides the international symbol for recycling. There are two basic sizes, some tape, some knives, and an invitation for viewers to carve their own box and place it where they like in the garden.

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Entrance to Bashir Makhoul's Giardino Occupato

Entrance to Bashir Makhoul’s Giardino Occupato.

John Beck, in his catalog essay “Between the Castle and the Village,” draws a comparison to Franz Kafka’s protagonist fromThe Trial, Joseph K., who is neither from the castle nor the village and is therefore nothing, just something in the way. (That he would go to Kafka’s The Trial for a comparison is particularly apt, as the other piece in this two-person show is Aissa Deebi’s video installation “The Trial,” which I was not able to view.)

Makhoul’s cardboard village looks like a Palestinian refugee camp, improvised and thrown together…The cardboard units also recall the ersatz buildings used in MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain), training facilities such as the “town” known as Chicago built in the Negev Desert by the Israeli Defense Force in the early 1980s to provide rehearsal space for military manoeuvres. Makhoul’s model is not categorically a village or a castle but borrows aspects of both. The cardboard structures appear to celebrate the organic growth of a collective enterprise but they also participate in the occupation of space, however temporarily.

Cartoonist Naji Al-Ali's character Handala crowns one portion of installation.

Cartoonist Naji Al-Ali’s character Handala crowns one portion of the installation.

Behind Handala, the "faceless" backs of the stacked boxes resembles the Israeli Apartheid Wall.

Behind Handala, the “faceless” backs of the stacked boxes resembles the Israeli Apartheid Wall.

“What happens to the exhibit when it rains?” I wrote in my notes upon leaving. Later that day, it did indeed rain.

Like Makhoul, Houston-based artist Rahul Mitra has also been working on a series of dynamic sculptures using boxes and community collaboration. In his show “Box City” at the Lawndale Art Center in spring 2013, Mitra collected wooden wine boxes, distributed them to local artists who decorated them, then assembled the boxes in the Lawndale Art Center’s sculpture garden. Mitra repeated this idea, with some variations, in his installation “Boxing Social Structures” which was part of Project Row Houses Round 38 series of exhibitions. (The variations at PRH included the fact that the row house–the exhibition space–became another “box” to be decorated, a video shot inside a three-wheeler taxi in India, i.e. a box on wheels, was screened on one wall, and when a tree adjacent to Mitra’s installation space fell, though it fell away from the house its roots broke through the “box,” i.e the floor.)

To Mitra, these boxes and arrangements of boxes are representative of slums and favelas–rudimentary, ad hoc, ephemeral abodes made of the cheapest (reclaimed) building materials. Similarly, Dawn Stetzel’s piece Backpack, which was featured in a ceramics show curated by Jennie Ash and Rebecca Hutchinson at the Art League last spring, mounts child-like, house-shaped objects on a back pack frame so that the wearer carries these dwellings on her back, like a turtle.

Finally, though the subject matter is somewhat different, I find the materials and the process used by these artists similar to another installation I saw at the Spring Street Studios last spring: Nicola Parente’s “Colony Collapse.”

Like Makhoul and Mitra, Parente arranges empty containers (paper bags, in his case) to create an immersive environment that evokes a dwelling–only in Parente’s case, the dwelling is for bees, not humans.

I was talking with a friend recently, a parent. My friend made the observation that children love stacking things like boxes and sofa cushions and blocks and houses of cards, but only if they get to knock them over. Half the fun of building the thing is knocking it over. I’m not exactly sure what that has to do with these exhibits, but I’ll leave you to reflect on that.

4 thoughts on “Outside the Box — Modular Installations from Venice to Houston

  1. lina

    Great write up. So first i want to address the disappointment i have with the curators of the biennial. I feel that art transcends boundaries and to exclude or rather limit the Palestinian artists pieces within the biennial is sad; however in that same vein i could argue that it propagates the status quo of many palestinian artists with that of rebels or revolutionaries.. living/creating outside the box, which works to their benefit anyway. As for this trend in humanity towards our ever growing populations and the rich becoming richer and the poor living in boxes, i guess i feel glad that the artistic community is making a statement about a long standing and growing problem we have in the global community that was either ignored or supressed (i have to credit JR the french artist who was painting the favelas not so long ago) , so now that we know about favelas and the shanties in india, what are we going to do about it…
    with regards to knocking things down.. from my recollection it was the boys who broke my sand castles.

    Reply
    1. Harbeer Sandhu Post author

      Well, Lina, I don’t know if it’s fair to be disappointed with the bureaucrats at the Biennale. The Biennale did promote this as an officially recognized show, it was just not allowed to call itself the “Palestine Pavilion.” Rather, like many other shows that were recognized AND promoted by the Biennale in all their promotional materials, it was categorized as a “Collateral Event.”

      And at one level, I get it. With the Biennale set up the way it is, there is no extant Palestinian state apparatus with whom they can communicate because there is no extant Palestinian state…So, for example, the US Pavilion is managed (but not curated) by the US State Department (and other countries have their own processes and institutions for making this event happen every two years). In the case of Palestine, which governmental body has the authority and legitimacy to even negotiate something like this? The Palestinian Authority? They don’t even control all of Palestine–just the West Bank!

      The Venice Biennale is often referred to as the UN of art, and like the UN, the Palestinian state is in some kind of awkward limbo–not fully in, not fully out–in both contexts. The difference is that if the UN were to recognize a Palestinian state, then curators and artists and institutions could begin to have such conversations with the Biennale, but the converse is not true: if the Biennale were to promote any show as “the Palestine Pavilion,” it would have zero effect in the United Nations (or on the ground in Palestine). The UN thing must necessarily happen first, and the Biennale thing cannot happen without that UN thing.

      Reply
      1. Yenni

        I had the opportunity to be in Venice and see this extbiihion a little over a week ago. I absolutely LOVED The Life Between Buildings 360 experience. Is there any possibility that you will release the short films online or along with The Human Scale doc? I only had the opportunity to see 2.5 of them due to time constraints. Both the thinking behind and the execution of the videos was thought provoking for all types of designers. I wished I had time to see The Human Scale documentary in the other room, so I am really excited to hear that it will be available in 2013! If all of this material becomes available, I will definitely be sharing it with all my fellow designers.

        Reply
    2. Aldi

      I had the opportunity to be in Venice and see this exbthiiion a little over a week ago. I absolutely LOVED The Life Between Buildings 360 experience. Is there any possibility that you will release the short films online or along with The Human Scale doc? I only had the opportunity to see 2.5 of them due to time constraints. Both the thinking behind and the execution of the videos was thought provoking for all types of designers. I wished I had time to see The Human Scale documentary in the other room, so I am really excited to hear that it will be available in 2013! If all of this material becomes available, I will definitely be sharing it with all my fellow designers.

      Reply

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