Tuesday, October 27, 2009

iconoclash dhaka: Naeem Mohaiemen's "Live True Life or Die Trying" at Cue Art

Naeem Mohaiemen's “Live True Life or Die Tryin,” at New York's Cue Art Foundation until October 31st--and afterward traveling on to Gijon, Zurich and Kolkata--presents two sets of photographs and accompanying text panels, facing each other across the gallery space. Taken singly and stripped of their accompanying texts, the photographs could easily be read as photojournalistic products, saleable and intelligible within the economies of contemporary news reporting. Arranged as they are, however, they tell a more ambiguous story.

Live True Life or Die Trying -

Specifically, the visitor finds herself poised between two political rallies that took place in Dhaka, on the same day in January of 2009. The artist describes them like this:

“The one on the university campus organized by my friends and allies: the left student groups, the activist coalitions. The rally ends, as expected, with the ritual burning of the effigy. The words written on the straw figure have not changed much in three decades: there are still warmongers, still imperialism. After the fire goes out, we let everyone start coming into the university area again. Soon traffic is back to its usual chaotic mess.

The other rally is much bigger and more intense. In this one, I find no familiar faces, except among the photographers. Organized by one of the newer Islamist groups, a mixture of Khilafat and traditional left targets. Demanding the withdrawal of Bangladeshi soldiers from UN peacekeeping missions. Fueled by rumors of a future multinational force in Iraq, led by Bangladesh or Pakistan. Whether it would happen or not is almost beside the point. The intention is to resist, and loudly.”

So the visitor is stuck in a mediating position between two simultaneous political performances, one seemingly by rote, a ritual that ends “as expected,” the other with an unpredictable intensity. Their relationship, one to the other, is anything but simple: they converge at points and clash at others; they use the same language, the same targets, the same physical possession of urban space in pursuit of radically different collective, utopian ends; their teleologies are mutually exclusive, and mutually constitutive; they lay claim to singular truths, but their respective performances of these truth-claims are riven with internal dialogisms and stress-points that undercut what presents itself as heroic self-sufficiency, authenticity and indivisible essence.

Taken singly the photographs seem to make truth-claims of their own, but thrown into this unstable juxtaposition—one that resists dialectical resolution—their indexical messages get crossed and confusing, especially when our photojournalist breaks ranks and turns the camera away from the action, away from the performance and onto its audience. And what do we make of the poetic asides he includes as text posted next to the photographs, these ruminations and doubts? If the mythology of the truth of the modern news photograph demands faithful documentation, without alteration or manipulation or framing, and demands of the photographer a radical self-effacement—the affectlessness of the surveillance camera indexing the really real—then these brooding fragments can only cause us to mistrust our medium. Surrendering them, he voluntarily surrenders his reportorial reliability: all truths are, for the moment, placed in brackets.

I was telling someone I know about this exhibition and they asked me “but does it work as art?” I wasn't sure how to answer the question, to be honest, but I was willing to venture that, whatever it is Naeem has created here, it requires thinking to make it work. To put it more bluntly, it requires giving a shit. So with that preamble, I invite you to check out the work in the gallery (or online), give a shit, have a think, and stay tuned. Hoping to lure Naeem into a conversation about the implications of the work, conducted right here on the blog and soon...


Naeem Mohaiemen said...

A friend emailed me yesterday:

In terms of our ongoing conversation. You said you wrote women out of it....

There's one woman in one of the first few photos on the wall that sets up your engagement with the "islamist" rally; in a sari, across from journalist/photographer types. And then you refer, in essence, to women as objects of male desire, the photo about the flirtatious "girl" (I think you use that term or was it boy?) and then about the ad/milk/porn. These references, in context of what you say was a conscious attempt to remove women from the photos, seemed to reinforce a very traditional conversation on gender experience and meaning. I dunno Naeem, maybe I'm missing something, but I'm not convinced that you are doing anything all that challenging with gender and social movements here. I'm open to being enlightened. =)

I replied to her today:

I didn't actually ever say "I wrote women out of it" (not sure where you got that quote from??). What I actually said, at the Vijay Prashad panel (which you missed), was as follows: I chose very deliberately not to include images of women protesters at the leftist rally because that would allow the audience the safe self-comforting emotions of "ok the islamists are only men, but the leftists have the women with them" which is both self-comforting and self-deluding. It feeds into easy equations and of course doesn't see that the Islamists can also, when dictated by strategy, command women activists. Since the project is at least partially about camera politics (as indicated by first image's reference to the cropped/uncropped prayer cap), I also did not want to give the audience the easy out-- the familliar soothing signs of "progressives=men & women marching together", at least in this project.

The woman in sari is actually leaving the site of photographs. The photographers were all trying to snap the rally, and the portion with all the women, and she walked out of it. In that image she's actually breaking through the cordon. (There's another woman as well, at the edge of the Che t-shirt.)

Now regarding the portions of text, you refer to, I actually have very different readings. First of all my reading of sexual or romantic desire here is not at all about women as "objects of male desire". Why should it would be one-sided. It's about equal parts desire on both sides.

Now going to the specific: The girl who flirtatiously asks about beautiful boys is also a reference to the manicured vision of male beauty, something that awakens her desire, but also confuses (when the boy is prettier than her). She's also asserting her own control, rejecting that which does not fit her own desires.

"coyf porn" is both "come on your face" and "cock on your face". The latter more commonly from gay porn, so it's not by default male-female sex either. The coyf moment is also the "money shot", the moment after which the actors in the film get paid. The critique here was about journalism's need for such "coyf" moments as well. The image of the angry Muslim mob is an orgasmic moment for photo journalism. So coyf shot is used in a critical and also playful sense.

There was another reference, which was "I'm trying to make some girl", which of course is the Stones song, but the lyrics change halfway through to "we're on a losing streak" which is the moment where we move from personal to the movement. Thus in so many places desire moves from personal to political. I talk about left political movements as a broken, doomed love affair. We're waiting flower in hand, hoping to get that romantic spark back. But the we here is male and female and human.

Alex Keefe said...

I for one am just happy to know what coyf means.  I remember asking Sarnath and him not knowing either.  Or was he only pretending not to know...

Alex Keefe said...

The photo in question, of the woman in the sari leaving the rally, is one that stuck with me as well. She breaks the cordon, leaves the stage, turns away from the performance of collective, utopian desire and, in doing so, at least for this viewer, powerfully figures the internal fissures, the atomizing pressures that make the performance of that collective utopian desire always already in fragments.

One of the men she pushes past turns his head to watch her pass by. His concentration lapses. She leaves the field where the camera stages political truth, so does his gaze, and ours tries to follow.

Why I say that she powerfully figures that atomizing, fragmentary pressure is that her disruptive withdrawal, in the gravitational visual pull that it occasions, makes visible the coterminous edges of the photojournalistic field of representation and the performance of a collective, patriarchal politics. She leaves both, and the fabric of both is torn.