EMILY JACIRENTRY DENIED (a concert in Jerusalem), 2003, Still from single-channel video: 105 min. Photo by Joerg Lohse. Courtesy the artist. 


Emily Jacir

Palestine United Kingdom
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Material for a Film (2004– ), Emily Jacir’s research project on the late Palestinian intellectual Wael Zuaiter, is an intimate installation. It comprises archival documents including photographs of Zuaiter’s apartment in Rome, where he was shot dead by Mossad agents in 1972 for his alleged connections to the Black September terrorist group, which killed 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics earlier that year. That Zuaiter was among the first to be targeted by Israel following the Munich attack has led some critics to be wary of Material for a Film. In his 2009 review of Jacir’s project, New York Times art critic Ken Johnson questions a wall text stating Zuaiter was never “conclusively” linked to the Munich events; he asks, “How can we know if [Jacir] is manipulating her material, leaving out anything that might be suspicious or incriminating?” Likewise, commenting on “Europa,” Jacir’s late 2015 survey at Whitechapel Gallery in London, which includes Material for a Film, Rachel Cooke of the Guardian wrote, “It seems odd that the Munich massacre . . . [is] not detailed in the notes that accompany the work.”

It was hard to understand such skepticism when wandering the meticulously arranged installation at Whitechapel—a sentiment made stronger by accompanying testimonies from those who knew Zuaiter as a friend, lover and pacifist. Far from portraying Zuaiter as a saint (as accused in Cooke’s review), Jacir instead focused on presenting him as a cosmopolitan individual. One of Zuaiter’s favorite pieces of music, Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, played at the exhibition’s entrance; a clip from the 1963 film The Pink Panther, in which he played an extra, was shown elsewhere. A large photographic print captured an inspiring selection of books that Zuaiter owned, including Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855) and Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading (1934). These personal effects—many of which came from the archives of Zuaiter’s partner, Janet Venn-Brown—created a sense of real familiarity, resulting in a dissonance between the person the installation portrays, and the terrorism that triggered his assassination.

The sense of tragedy resonated beyond the individual loss that those who knew him clearly felt. When Zuaiter was killed, he was carrying his favorite book, One Thousand and One Nights, in his pocket. (One of the bullets lodged into the book’s spine—a photograph of which was displayed in the installation.) At the time of his death, Zuaiter was fulfilling his dream of translating the book into Italian from its original Arabic text—a translation that, according to the exhibition, still does not exist.

This theme of unfulfilled dreams recurred with other works in “Europa.” Stazione (2008–09) presents documentation for a public intervention at the 2009 Venice Biennale—where Jacir planned to have all station names for the city’s Route 1 waterbus displayed in Arabic—that was never realized. Another work, the video installation ENTRY DENIED (a concert in Jerusalem) (2003), features a concert by musicians Marwan Abado of Palestine and Austria’s Franz Hautzinger and Peter Rosmanith in an empty Viennese theater, organized by Jacir after Abado, an Austrian national of Palestinian origin, was denied entry to perform in East Jerusalem and Bethlehem in 2002.

Yet, despite the political sentiments, it would be wrong to frame Jacir’s work simply as—in Cooke’s view—partisan, highly political and relating more to activism and journalism. After all, there is a constant artistic formality to her practice—something “Europa” portrayed effectively. Take Change/Exchange (1998), in which Jacir converted USD 100 into French francs at a Paris exchange bureau, exchanged them back to American dollars at a different bureau, and repeated the cycle until the money was reduced to coins. The process is documented in a series of receipts, and photographs of each bureau, as a work of abstraction—in which both monetary value and its manifestation as physical currency are whittled down to the essence of a transaction. One might say Material for a Film follows the same formal logic; though in this case the “swap” entails one person’s body for another, in what is perhaps one of the crudest forms of abstraction there is—when a human life is reduced to politics.