Israeli artist Dor Guez explores the complex structures of race and national identity.
Dor Guez’s five-part exhibition project “The Sick Man of Europe“ has been exhibited by a number of museums across the world since 2016. Art Radar takes a look at the sprawling art research project in the context of the artist’s wider practice.
Dor Guez, the son of a Palestinian Christian and a Tunisian Jew, has dedicated over a decade to exploring the complexity of the structures of racialisation and national identity that intervene into his own life. For the photography teacher and scholar, art practice constitutes a unique activity for its capacity to render intelligible the specific ways that material and visual cultures interlink with national narratives to form majority and minority identities.
Minority archives and ethnography of nationalisms
Previous projects have seen the artist explore the complexities of Palestinian Christian life within a larger Muslim minority in a Jewish State. For the 2010 exhibition “Al-Lydd” in Berlin, Guez used photographs of the ancient Arab city (now the Israeli city of Lod) to make video works tracing three generations of his Christian-Arab family. The deeply personal work highlighted the complex life and self-identity of the Israeli Christian-Arab minority. A project entitled “Christian Palestinian Archive”, which opened in April 2016 at the CUNY James Gallery, consisted of a growing collection of documentation of the personal histories of the Christian Palestinian community worldwide.
Other works have focused on the construction of the more dominant or majority national narratives in the region. The Nation’s Groves (2010) explored the history of Israeli nationalism in particular, departing from detailed research into an institution known as The Nation’s Groves – an agricultural body in the government that operated between 1950 and 1960. The exhibition included large panoramic views of artificial forests and the Israeli national tree plantation projects as well as interviews with people who worked for The Nation’s Groves.
The institution played a particular role in transforming Arab territory into pastoral forestland, designing and classifying the topography of the new country after 1948. By focusing on a particular institution’s history, Dor Guez is able to literally “map” the Zionist imagination on the ground. The use of ethnographic tactics, such as sketches, photography and interviews is a constant in his work.
The artist has commented in a number of interviews that he hopes that his focus on the processes through which minority figures are produced will have resonance with other political contexts across the globe. As a scholar and professor of photography, with a recent PhD thesis on the role of photography in early 20th century Zionist endeavours, his work is thus both extremely specific in its engagement with the history of identity formation and struggles in the region as well as universal.
“The Sick Man of Europe” project: creative practice interrupted
In his current project “The Sick Man of Europe”, Guez shifts his focus from national identity construction to the shared histories of militarisation between two continents. The title of the project references a phrase coined by Nicholas II, in which the Russian Czar attempted to belittle the Ottoman Empire as economically “weak” in comparison to Western Europe. In this project Dor Guez focuses on narrating the lives of five creative individuals from Middle Eastern backgrounds, each of whose artistic practice was interrupted due to their obligation to fight in various twentieth-century wars. The project reflects on the tense relations between national projects, militarisation and creative life.
In his most recent exhibition at DEPO Istanbul, Dor Guez presented “The Sick Man of Europe: The Architect”, which originally debuted at the Detroit Museum of Art in January 2016. This second chapter focused on the character of Kemal P., an architecture student who, on graduation towards the end of the Second World War, was recruited by the Turkish army.
The main work in “The Architect” is a two-channel video featuring 13 of Kemal’s photographs shot between 1938–39. The images, recovered by Dor Guez in his research include photos taken during the Turkish Republic’s Victory Day Parade in Ankara and the funeral of the controversial, secularising republic leader Kemal Ataturk, as well as more casual shots of Kemal’s friends.
The video work consists of archival documents, photographs and footage shot by the artist and is accompanied by a dense soundtrack that mixes in music compositions, soundscapes and interviews, specifically an interview that Guez conducted with Kemal himself. In one sequence, on the left side of the video, viewers watch the hands of an architecture student (of roughly the same age as Kemal P.) drawing expert renderings of the landmarks and parks that appear in Kemal’s original photographs.
By focusing on the buildings, monuments, and squares such as Atatürk Forest Farm, Zafer Square, Güven Park and Ulus Square, one can track the architectural changes that took place in Turkey during its transformation from Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic. Parallel to documenting the historic evolution of Turkey, a story of friendship unfolds in the photographs shown in the video between Kemal P. and his friend Ahmad.
Creativity, War and Sickness
By exploring the ways in which militarization has structured, intervened into, oppressed and interrupted creative life, Guez’ project perhaps inverts the direction and use of the term “the sick man”. Originally used to pathologize the Ottoman Empire, Guez suggests that sickness in the late 19th and early 20th century was rather the emergent reconfigured nationalisms, for whom militarization spread across the continent like a disease.
The third chapter of “The Sick Man”, “The Composer”, was presented at the Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem in January 2017. This time, Guez presented the story of Hagop, an Armenian composer whose family was expelled from Kütahya during World War I. Like the second chapter, Dor Guez allows a relationship between memory, narrative and architecture or landmarks to emerge. The work consists of documentation of a trip he made with Hagop to visit sacred sites in contemporary Armenia. Along the way the two listen to an archival conversation between Komitas and Suni, two renowned early Armenian composers. The two compare composing to a journey, and point out a connection between the art of composition and Armenian topography.
The exhibition also included a series of photograms featuring ground plans of Armenian churches, ceramic objects from Kütahya that Guez traced and extracted from the museum’s collection, and showcases containing prints reproduced from glass slides, documenting the Ottoman army during WWI. Among the latter is a slide showing Enver Pasha, one of the principal perpetrators of the Armenian genocide. The project functions as an allegory for the story of the Armenian minority within the Ottoman Empire.
In an interview with the White Review, Dor Guez reflects on the project:
The Sick Man of Europe focuses on creative people – an architect, a painter, a composer – but because of their participation in wars, their way of thinking or looking at the world completely changed. Sometimes it had a very productive impact, but sometimes it had the opposite effect and they stopped creating. It’s a project about potential, and I think nationality is also a potential that has not really been realised – especially not in the Middle East.
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