How Palestinian 'Art' Ruined an Italian Back Yard

While my wife and I were on vacation rather non-politically exploring Venice, our tour guide walked us through a rather rare space of grass and trees, the back yard of a residence. But the space was dominated by a motley collection of cardboard boxes with tiny square holes cut in them. This was an “art exhibit” for the Venice Bienniale. The guide didn't know what the exhibit meant, but there were publicity materials inside the house.

The exhibit turned out to be an exploration of Palestinian political identity by Bashir Makhoul called “Otherwise Occupied.” Somehow, this motley collection of cardboard questioned Israeli (and Western) colonialism. It also carried a bit of Occupy Wall Street in its overtones. Members of the public were invited to carve a box and add it to the space:

This growing cardboard shanty-town is constructed by the public making and carrying each house to be placed in the garden, creating a quiet parade of houses through the surrounding streets. Giardino Occupato emphasises the performative aspects of occupation – the act of getting there and of filling the space.

Unavoidably political, the work evokes the politics of space in Palestine, alluding to both the filling of the West Bank with Settlements and the poor housing conditions of many Palestinians and the haphazard developments of Palestinian villages and refugee camps under Israeli restrictions.

A garden is always already an act of violent occupation, of humans forcing nature into landscape. In this sense, Giardino Occupato is a double invasion. Yet there is also a playful quality to this work, calling to mind childhood preoccupations with boxes as spaces of imaginative transformation. Play, however, can also be a subversive tool, one, especially as deployed by Makhoul in Giardino Occupato, which can allow us to imagine and act otherwise.

This "exhibit" was supported by, among others, the American University of Cairo. Together with a second artist, Aissa Deebi, the exhibit imagined artistic and political utopias:

Makhoul and Deebi as artists also maintain a deep interest in the aspects of play and performance within art as an alternative occupation; an occupation that remains marginal, though vital, to the workaday world. Art is capable of occupying cultural spaces that are otherwise inaccessible or invisible, the intersections of disciplines, cultural spaces and knowledge. Art offers ways of thinking ‘otherwise’.

...The artworks presented here by Makhoul and Deebi are artistically and critically questioning the Palestinian identity; thinking through the de-territorialisation of Palestine and the issues of dispersal, plurality, and dispossession. Both artists, whether exploring contemporary colonial actions, turning them into a collective relation to space, enacting a dangerous ‘game’, or digging into the archive and researching particular cases in history where the Palestinian identity was integrated within a global communist identity-seeking utopia, are enacting the performativity of thinking ‘otherwise’.

Which is where an American conservative on vacation can only get a little depressed that once again, some aggrieved America-hating leftist bizarrely thinks that the global communist “utopia” was the opposite of “occupation.”

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis