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In Where We Come From Emily Jacir asked more than 30 Palestinians what they would do if they could return to their country. She then carried out all the tasks.
In Where We Come From Emily Jacir asked more than 30 Palestinians what they would do if they could return to their country. She then carried out all the tasks.

Her dark materials

The artist Emily Jacir has produced the defining work of her career by reconstructing the life and death of an assassinated poet.

When Emily Jacir was a kid, she told her family she wanted to become an artist and they panicked - not because they thought a life in the arts would be difficult but because they thought it might be dangerous. "They'll kill you, too," they said. Jacir's family wasn't just being melodramatic. In the context of Palestinian society in the late 1970s, to be an artist, literary figure or intellectual with a public profile was indeed something of a risk. Documents from the era describe a campaign of intimidation against Palestinian writers and poets living in Israel and the occupied territories.

But Jacir - who is 37, tall and physically expressive, with her face framed by wild brown curls and her features registering a wide spectrum of emotions over the course of a single conversation - is nothing if not determined. She got what she wanted and became not just an artist but also one of the most dynamic cultural figures of her generation. Last year she won both the Prince Claus Award and the Venice Biennale's Golden Lion for an artist under the age of 40. This year she is nominated for the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation's Hugo Boss Prize, worth $100,000 (Dh 367,310). Previous recipients include Matthew Barney, Pierre Huyghe and Rikrit Tiravanija. If Jacir wins this autumn, she will be feted with an exhibition at the Guggenheim next spring.

In the meantime, Jacir just completed a sound installation for The Jerusalem Show, an exhibition curated by Jack Persekian, which opened a 10-day run on July 9, showing the work of 27 artists in 17 venues throughout the old city. The untitled piece - named in parentheses for the shared taxi, or servees, system that is active across the Levant but dramatically curtained in the occupied territories - is installed at Damascus Gate. It reproduces the sounds of drivers shouting out destinations to attract passengers for overland transport from Jerusalem to Amman, Beirut and Damascus, cities that were once easy to reach but are no longer attainable by car. It is, like most of Jacir's work, keenly concerned with movement and the refusal, by any means necessary, of confinement, no matter how painful or poignant the process may be.

Jacir first caught the attention of the international art world in 1998, with a work titled Change/Exchange. During a residency in Paris, she took one hundred US dollars and exchanged them for French francs, back and forth, 67 times in three days, until the commission fees for each transaction left her with nothing but chump change, small coins no money trader would touch. Jacir explored the toll taken by constant, repetitive, obsessive acts of exchanging, swapping and substituting one thing for another.

The first time Persekian saw Jacir's work, he remembers looking at a set of her slides and being specifically impressed with Change/Exchange, which consists of photographs of the money and the exchange booths alongside photo-copies of the receipts. "That work stuck in my mind for a long time," recalls Persekian. "It was thought-provoking, interesting and quite articulate. It was not directly related to the Palestinian issue or cause or identity. I thought it went far beyond that. It relates to people all over the world, to the idea of crossing borders, the depreciation of things, how you lose them over time by being transient."

After seeing those slides, Persekian proposed that Jacir do a residency in Jerusalem. Her propensity for such arrangements - intense periods of hyper-productivity in a range of different places - is itself a kind of exchange, substituting one city, one studio, for another. But this time she counter-proposed a project. That project turned into a masterpiece called Where We Come From. Jacir asked more than 30 Palestinians living both abroad and within the occupied territories: "If I could do anything for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?" She collected responses and carried out tasks in an extended performance of wish fulfilment by proxy.

Jacir initially produced Where We Come From as a publication that circulated in Palestine. If it had been exhibited in a gallery, nobody would have been able to get there, the artist remarked at the time. Portions of the work were later printed in an issue of the magazine Grand Street, replete with an introduction by Edward Said. Eventually Jacir did create an exhibition version with her passport, a video, framed texts and unframed photographs. "For the exhibition of the work," she says, "I felt the texts should be framed and trapped within a fixed border. I felt the photographs should not be framed because this is a dream."

The piece, which was recently acquired by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, has inspired unusually lucid prose from critics across the art world - though none, notes Anthony Reynolds, whose gallery represents Jacir in London, have come close to capturing the power of the piece itself. Still, something about the work cuts to the core of what contemporary art can do. "With sobriety, rigour, and a pared-down economy of means, yet without any trace of pathos or anger (which would have been all too understandable given both the subject matter and the highly personal nature of her approach), the artist gives a devastating account of the tragedy, the absurdity, of partition in Palestine," writes the essayist and theorist Stephen Wright. "Using her constitutive mobility, her artistic skills, her elusive implication, Jacir manages to renew our - or at least my - confidence in art's potential use-value. For its ethical underpinnings seem less rooted in a symbolic economy of exchange than in an economy of the gift."

In addition to Change/Exchange and Where We Come From, Jacir has authored other memorable works such as Sexy Semite (an "intervention" in the classified advertising space of The Village Voice, for which Jacir asked 60 Palestinians living in New York to buy ads in the personals section, seeking mates and offering to swap one right of return for the other); Crossing Surda (A Record Of Going To And From Work), which was inspired by Israeli soldiers throwing her passport in the mud and holding a gun to her temple at a checkpoint between Ramallah and Birzeit University, and involved her cutting a hole in the bottom of her handbag and stealthily filming her trek across the same terrain, to and from teaching classes, as a generative gesture of revenge; and Embrace, a sculpture of a baggage-claims conveyor belt that spins in claustrophobic circles, a haunting metaphor for the Palestinian condition.

The strength of Jacir's work lies in her combination of opposites, seamlessly exchanging the sublime and the banal, the sentimental and the cynical, the spontaneous and the studious, the poetic and the political within a single piece. "She is dealing with things that are quite close to us," says Persekian. "And she deals with them directly. She goes into extensive research and then really synthesises everything into representative gestures that are focused and simple. Working with her on Where We Come From was a real eye-opener. Anyone could understand the complexity of the situation. Anyone anywhere, close or far, interested or not, would start to understand. There's a very nice expression in Arabic, sehl-e-mumtanaa. It doesn't really translate into English but it basically means simple yet hard to reach, hard to imitate."

It is striking, then, that the work which has pushed Jacir to the apex of her career - Material For A Film, her most ambitious to date, featured in the 2007 Venice Biennale and the 2008 Home Works Forum - takes a rather different approach. For one thing, it returns to that foundational moment of Jacir becoming an artist in the first place, despite her family's fear (which Jacir's sister Annemarie doubled by becoming a remarkable filmmaker). For another, it brings into sharp relief Jacir's ongoing work on history, resistance and the power of artists and intellectuals to transform theory into practice, thoughts into actions.

Palestinian artists and intellectuals were living dangerous times in the 1970s, in part, perhaps, because their activities were bound up in the political question of Palestine. "Since the June War of 1967, the situation has become more alarming," says a 1970 memorandum issued by the Beirut-based Institute for Palestine Studies. "Progressive intellectuals have been persecuted [and] the campaign of intimidation and encroaching on personal freedom has increased." The memorandum goes on to cite the "deplorable" circumstances under which Palestinian men of letters were living. It details the house arrest, imprisonment and deportation of numerous writers and poets, including Mahmoud Darwish, Kamal Nasser and Samih al-Kassem.

In July 1972, the novelist Ghassan Kanafani was assassinated in a car-bomb blast on the streets of Beirut. A few months later, the poet and translator Wael Zuaiter was gunned down inside the entrance to his apartment building in Rome. Within a year, a dozen more Palestinians living in Europe were dead. Most of them were artists and intellectuals. All of them were killed by Israeli agents as part of the "Wrath of God" campaign, which was carried out in response to the Olympic games massacre in Munich but seemed to miss its target (the militants who organised, kidnapped and killed Israeli athletes) by a rather wide margin (cutting down bibliophiles, cafe dwellers and bona fide diplomats who were, to gauge by most criminal and scholarly inquiries since, innocent of all but intellect and charisma).

Young officers who were climbing up the ranks of Palestinian political organisations were killed as well, and some of them were situated quite far from intellectual life. Others, including Kanafani, who was also a spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, were arguably positioned somewhere in between political and more literary pursuits. "In truth, [the Israelis] were trying to sever [the] heads of a nascent organisation that was beginning to branch out in Europe, and to claim excellent young officers," explains the Beirut-based curator Rasha Salti. "Wael [Zuaiter] was not an officer, but a promising figure who was winning sympathy among Italian intellectuals."

"The killings went on for at least two decades," writes Simon Reeve, the author of One Day in September: The Story of the Munich Olympics Massacre. Though Israel's intelligence agency, the Mossad, argued that the assassinations were directly linked to Munich, explains Reeve, "the dead were mainly Palestinian intellectuals, politicians and poets. And the consequences of these so-called targeted killings for Israel have been appalling."

For Palestine, the consequences have been arguably even worse. The persecution of artists and intellectuals is as old as ancient Greece. Throughout modern political history, it was typically used as a tactic of authoritarian regimes intent on stifling internal dissent. But across the volatile fault lines of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it became a pernicious strategy in a low-grade war to cripple a culture. Bombing power stations, closing borders and cutting off fuel supplies may wreck a population's body, but killing thinkers is like blasting the synapses of a society's brain.

"I had always known these stories growing up," says Jacir. "These stories haunt us. And I had always known I wanted to do a piece on the 13 artists and intellectuals who were killed in Europe between 1972 and 1973." Again, Jacir got what she wanted. But the trigger for Material For A Film came, unexpectedly, from a random sidewalk sale of dollar-apiece books in New York. Amid the piles of pulp fiction, Jacir found Janet Venn-Brown's For A Palestinian: A Memorial To Wael Zuaiter, which was published in Italian in 1979, and translated into English in 1984. The book, edited by Zuaiter's partner of eight years, includes essays by Edward Said and Maxime Rodinson, a poem by Fadwa Tukan, an appendix detailing the Roman court's decision in Zuaiter's murder trial and a chapter titled Material For A Film, by the director Elio Petri and the screenwriter Ugo Pirro. Before Petri's death in 1982, the two men were planning to make a film about Zuaiter's life. Jacir picked up the project and has been running with it ever since.

"Wael was one of the people who felt close to me," she says. "He lived in Rome, I went to high school in Rome. He moved from the Gulf, I grew up in the Gulf. There's something about his character. Wael didn't publish anything. He burnt everything, all of his works, before he died. This failed figure was somehow compelling." The details of Zuaiter's story were also quite riveting. He was bookish, handsome in a dorky way, wore the same suit for 15 years. He appeared fleetingly in the Peter Sellers film The Pink Panther. He was intent on translating the Thousand and One Nights directly from Arabic to Italian. (He never finished, and to this day no such translation exists.)

A black-and-white photograph of Zuaiter's felled body shows him face down in a pool of blood on the pavement, manuscript pages still tucked gingerly beneath his arm. Of the bullets fired at his head and chest, one lodged itself into the spine of volume two from the Thousand and One Nights, which Zuaiter had carried around with him everywhere. Jacir travelled to Rome. She met the artists, writers and poets Zuaiter had known. She photographed the covers of the books he had kept in his library - Dostoevsky, Durrell, Genet, Rimbaud, Blake, Eliot, Pound, Wordsworth, Whitman, Thoreau, Huxley, Goethe and more. She borrowed copies of the Italian-Palestinian journal Rivoluzione Palestinese that Zuaiter had read. She listened to Gustav Mahler's ninth symphony as he had done. She also re-enacted the crime scene, trying to imagine the movements of Zuaiter and his assassins. And throughout, she befriended Venn-Brown, who is Australian, and who, among other things, showed her the pierced copy of the Thousand And One Nights that she had kept hidden for 30 years. Jacir photographed every page that bore traces of the bullet.

When she was invited to participate in the 2006 Biennale of Sydney, Jacir learnt how to shoot a .22 calibre pistol, the same gun used to kill Zuaiter. She fired bullets into 1,000 blank books and displayed them as documentation of a performance for Material For A Film. She travelled to Nablus to meet Zuaiter's sister and to see the house where he grew up. She spent three years accumulating material. Then she began cutting it all down to installation size.

"I have to tell you, this is nothing. I have so much stuff," says Jacir, midway through the five-day installation of Material For A Film when it was shown in Beirut this spring. The process of exhibiting the work involved detailed architectural drawings and a complete overhaul of a room in Galerie Sfeir-Semler's 1,000-square-metre space. Jacir describes the work as "incredibly gruelling." "The editing process was hell. I wanted to include everything," she says. "I built a model, but there is only so much you can do with a maquette. A lot of the work has to happen on site."

Jacir considers the installation a film that is arranged spatially. "You as a viewer," she explains, "you have the power to move through it." Jacir is reticent to say where she will take Material For A Film next. She recently did another residency in Wyoming, where she was only writing. It seems quite likely she really will make a film, a feature, about Zuaiter's life. Jacir may have always known stories like Zuaiter's, but others have largely about forgotten the persecution of Palestinian intellectuals. Persekian says he only vaguely remembers the events. "Little has been written in depth about this," adds Adila Laidi-Hanieh, an essayist who teaches the history of modern Arab thought at Birzeit. But Jacir's work has revived real interest in the subject.

The Belgian playwright Rudi Meulemans has written a new piece, entitled Dhakara, about the assassinations of Palestinians in Europe. According to Laidi-Hanieh, the play, which will be performed in Brussels in November as part of the Masarat project, was directly inspired by Jacir's work. Visit Wael Zuaiter's Wikipedia page today and you'll find extensive references to Material For A Film. "I don't know whether your fervour is infectious, but somehow, the ghost of Wael Zuaiter has managed to infiltrate a break time in my consciousness," writes Salti in the Biennale of Sydney catalogue. Rather than retreat in fear, Jacir has stepped into the public sphere to boldly reclaim the relevance of an active intellectual life, for Palestine and beyond.

"The thing about Wael," she says, "he was outside of Palestine. He spoke the language of other people but he told our story. He was a pioneer," she says. In time the same will be said of her. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reports from Beirut for The National.

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