This Could Have Been an Exhibition

Thoughts on the New Jerusalem Desk at the WdW Review

By Tirdad Zolghadr
  • Tirdad Zolghadr

    Tirdad Zolghadr is a writer and curator. The working title of his third novel is Headbanger.

“Why is this thing an exhibition? It should have been a book.” I’ve leveled this accusation many a time, at colleagues, friends and students alike. And many times it’s been leveled at me. What the accusation usually means is that the show in question is too wordy. The ideas top-heavy, the language didactic, and the wall texts reminiscent of Leo Tolstoy.

Recently, I’ve been wondering about the opposite scenario: texts that should have been exhibitions. Not because a given text is too scopocentric, too graphic or such. (I doubt such a thing exists.) But because it abides by the para-conceptual line of reasoning that is usually the stuff of a thematic group show.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that exhibitions speak louder than words – thematic ones in particular. When in point of fact, curatorial thematics are rarely fleshed out. This is because they don’t need to be. At the end of the day, it’s supposedly about the art, not the thematics per se. (“This ain’t science or politics!”) While the artworks, for their part, are submitted to a heliocentric logic of politely rotating around the theme at hand. So any scrutiny of the art on its own terms is just as rare as scrutiny of the theme itself.

The upshot of all this to-and-fro is knowledge production in the slippery guise of mere atmosphere. In other words, the genuine hypothesis, and the vulnerability that comes with it, is not the stuff of exhibitions but publications. Which is where cases and wagers, proposals and counterexamples are not only possible but actually expected of you. Unless, of course, we’re talking art publications, in which case the atmospheric prevails.

It’s often true that using art as an epistemic kaleidoscope will work wonders. Consider themes like ‘abstraction’, or ‘humor’. I also know of a show on ‘The Letter W’ that seems to be a strong case in point. At other times, the results are more dicey [could be dicier? spell check disagrees, but it’s listed in OED], particularly when contemporary art generates a sense of ‘world politics’ regained.

Very much like Italian restaurants, daily newspapers, or Yoga, contemporary art has a particular shade of worldliness to offer. A worldliness characterized by a distinctly middle-class sense of cosmopolitan entitlement. To be clear, I am not claiming contemporary art and yoga are doing the same thing, but that, like other traditions, they both produce a sense of being-in-the-world that is predictable, replicable and specific.

Over the course of my contributions to the WdW Review, it is this specificity that I’d like to face up to. I’m aware that this ambition is more art-specific than the rest of the journal content, and I acknowledge the tedium thereof. But I am, for better and for worse, an art writer, and my commissioner is, in the end, an arts organization, while most of its contributors do seem to have one foot in the arts, if not both.



In other words, in order to do justice to the WdW Review’s hefty mission statement, I’d like to confront my own professional partialities. To begin with, art writers like myself are not unlike thematic group shows in that our interminable question marks typically pass for intellectual effort, and our innuendos for political analysis. Moreover, in terms of my formal title of Jerusalem Desk Editor, I need to insist on the fact that I am here on a multiple entry tourist visa, and have only been in the neighborhood for a few months so far.

Needless to say, most places are mind-fucks once you try to hang around, and allow them to get under your skin. When I was working in New York, for example, I was always intimidated by the provincialism of the hyper-privileged, but also bewildered by the sheer influence of the apparatus around me, the international weight of the recent history and high finance, the brunt of the Center of the Real. This was very different to the defensiveness I felt when spending time in Tehran, for example; a place that is thoroughly metropolitan on every level, save for being thoroughly ignored and isolated internationally.

But working in and around occupied Palestine means confronting the dynamics of slow-burn ethnic cleansing and the spectacle it produces. No other place is both as marginalized and as deeply enmeshed within an industry of ‘poornographic’ exposure. As a visiting writer, I grapple with the melodrama (and the luxury) of my own disgust and the quiet determination of so many around me. Thus far, this “grappling”amounts to biding my time, before making “projects” of my surroundings. I take my Arabic lessons, do the reading, meet students, visit colleagues, and largely mind my own business, spending many evenings watching Boardwalk Empire as I would elsewhere.

The points polemically raised in this introduction will mark the explicit theoretical premise of my next contribution. Here, the cosmopolitanism of our field will be subject to a more methodical discussion, just as it will be structuring my series as a whole. Even if the contents, forms and tenor will vary, the red line running through the series will strive to counter artworld melodies of free association with an annoying insistence on cuts, edges, faux amis and a good dollop of reflexivity.

Institutions are helpful in this regard. When working as a curator, I try to encourage artists to sink their teeth into their host venues, rather than pursue quasi-journalistic impressions of any semi-exotic surroundings. Not only is there plenty of meat to an institution to sink your teeth into but a surprising chunk of context will always be part of that dish willy-nilly. What’s more, focusing on host institutions allows you to reflect on where you’re coming from, professionally speaking.

In terms of content, contributions will include a survey of art institutions in the neighborhood, a portrait of artist Yazan Khalili and a discussion of various international embargos past and present, including BDS (Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions Against Israel). The latter is relevant not in terms of its concrete political possibilities, but of a belletristics of lines in the sand. What can an aesthetics of embargo possibly mean within a field like ours?

Contemporary art conjures a world that feels legible and boundless; that there’s no field of knowledge, no locality, the field cannot “‘reflect”, “‘address’” or “‘engage with’”, fruitfully and innocently. Such is the sense of place this series hopes to grapple with. Even as it talks Jerusalem, from the vantage point of a tourist visa. A tall order, but let’s see.