Whitehot Magazine

May 2011, Yto Barrada @ Deutsche Guggenheim

Yto Barrada, Arbre genealogique (Family Tree), 2005
C-Print, 150 x 150 cm
Copyright Yto Barrada & Galerie Sfeir-Semler, Hamburg/Beirut

Yto Barrada: Riffs
Deutsche Guggenheim
Unter den Linden 13/15
10117 Berlin
April 15 through June 19, 2011

When I traveled to Tangier, Morocco, this past February, the bustle and fashions presented contours that were not immediately readable to me, and though there were many sights the noises, smells, tastes and feel distinguished themselves.

That is, what I saw was the least of it. Before setting foot on the plane, I had paged books and Googled image after image of the town—but visual research had done little to prepare me for the many dimensions of Tangier in the flesh.

I got this feeling again on viewing photographs of the city by native Tangerine Yto Barrada, who currently has an expansive solo show entitled Riffs at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin: It seemed that, far away from their subjects, two dimensional photographs don’t quite jell with the “reality”.

That doesn’t mean Barrada’s photographs in themselves are not intriguing works of art. Nor does it mean that Barrada has any obligation to “depict” her hometown and region. Yet the presentation of her work in the context of her being named the 2011 Deutsche Bank Artist of the year did bring up interesting questions at the crossroads of art, representation, and money.

Coming from what the catalogue called “an interesting place between poetry and politics,” the photographs “deal with the ephemeral and the peripheral”. As the content of the photographs quietly tackles how biographical details can be braided in with the geopolitical, the gestalt of the images is quite compelling.

For example, the tender Arbre généalogique (Family Tree) (2005)— a negatively sun-stained wall apparently absent of family photographs—is placed next to other photographs of masses of shapes and colors, and it “riffs” with them in form and content. Bricks (Briques) (2003/11) is evocative in its color and shape, but it also gently references runaway development in the desert hills outside of the city. Rif Mountains (2009), a landscape, sketches the smoggy greens of the Rif Mountains, a historical stronghold of resistance to colonial rule.

The pictures themselves propose few narratives or commentaries. The artist herself vigorously denies being a documentary or journalistic photographer in any way, and that is clear. Indeed, this is art.

But at the same time, this is not an abstract anyplace of shapes and colors; we keep being reminded that this is all Tangier. Could the approach to the city be considered Universalist and regional at the same time? Because if it is not journalistic, another perspective is certainly evident in the approach: that of a taste-maker educated in the West and impeccably versed in the language of the Contemporary Arterati.

Yto Barrada, Briques (Bricks), 2003/2011 
C-Print, 150 x 150 cm
Copyright Yto Barrada & Galerie Sfeir-Semler, Hamburg/Beirut

Now, few would accuse Barrada of exoticism or Orientalism in reference to her hometown; in fact these are also themes on which she also “riffs”; palm trees and tile-work are recurring motifs and the subject of her subtle criticism. But in bringing obscure Tangier-as-subject into the art fold via the visual language of other (Western) contemporary art photography stars such as Wolfgang Tillmans, Nan Goldin and even Jeff Wall, could it be that the place is somehow being virtually colonized by the cosmopolitan taste arbiters of the digital 2000-teens?

In the Deutsche Guggenheim Magazine, a free publication stacked in the museum café, there was a curious section included before the articles treating the Riffs exhibition itself. It was called “Yto Barrada: My Things”: “Yto Barrada’s exhibition offers insight into everyday life in her native city Tangier. But what inspires her artistically?” It followed with blurbs about the singer Nellie McKay, hand-stitched footstools created by a Moroccan- American couple, and the Lower East Side-based Bidoun magazine, among other of Barrada’s favorite cultural items, artists and movies.

This to me seemed like an odd manner to convey biographical information about Deutsche Bank‘s Artist of the Year. It appeared as though the feature was nudging Barrada and Tangier, fashion-magazine-style, into a recognizable lifestyle brand. Along with the new Cinematheque de Tanger, which Barrada spearheaded and directs–and which is included in the Riffs exhibition as another of her works–it becomes more and more difficult to understand what in her oeuvre is supposed to be understood as art and what is lifestyle/biography.

Only about ten miles across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain, Tangier is a border town simmering in a poetics of the in-between. In 2011, while Easy-Jetting weekenders pop in for a bit of exotic on the cheap, and Europeans renovate abandoned manors into boutique hotels, Moroccans are quietly stuck within their borders – and their poverty. Meanwhile, the Interzone glamour of the place in the 50s—along with its seedy permissiveness à la William Burroughs—seems too to have long ago faded.

Moorish details are concealed under grime (unless polished to garish proportions for tourists), and once magnificent vegetation droops under encroaching urbanization and smog. The streets are filled with men and women dressed in customary djellabas and balgha soft leather sandals, though they also “riff” on tradition by throwing in Burberry headscarves or neon trims. It is a place perched in between the hyper-modernity of a global city and infrastructures of the Middle Ages. In many ways Barrada’s work captures the contradictions, as much as it can with the aforementioned lack of narrative. But again, there seems to be a dimension missing when images of the place are viewed out of context.

Yto Barrada, La Cage aux singes (Monkey Cage), 2008/2011
C-Print, 125 x 125 cm
Copyright Yto Barrada & Galerie Sfeir-Semler, Hamburg/Beirut

I personally enjoyed the multi-level contradictions of Tangier, and I was fortunate enough to visit the place with an able and informed friend, who took me to and introduced me to Barrada’s Cinematheque.

The Cinematheque de Tanger, housed in the old Cinema Rif, is a beacon of young, cosmopolitan taste on the main Socco Grande plaza. With considered décor that combines old French colonial and North African flea market treasures, the Cinematheque is a functioning cinema, and an organization dedicated to preserving the visual history of Morocco while bringing international culture to Tangier. The posters for the Cinematheque calendars are perfectly current with graphic design trends coming out of New York or Paris, and the cinema’s café is packed with fashionable, multi-lingual youngsters strung up to iPods and laptops. It is at the pinnacle of young high-low, neo-retro, cosmo-digital taste.

When I was there, I was delighted to see on the Cinematheque’s schedule that I was coinciding with a concert of the Ancient Master Musicians of Joujouka –internationally famed for Brian Jones’ 60s-era recording – and a large-scale installation of a copy of Brion Gysin’s “dream machine”.

While the Master Musicians were quite wonderful, I have to confess the event itself was a disaster. The concert started hours late amidst much confusion, and at a certain point the hip, young audience that had emerged from the filigreed woodwork –and the geriatric Musicians themselves – were left in utter darkness while French-speaking interns skittered about. The Musicians were also poorly paired with a guitarist by the name of Duke Garwood, who mangled the rhythms and drove out a good part of the audience, including me.

In retrospect, at a certain moment, the case of the Cinemateque appeared similar to so much else these days: the image from afar exists in a different world than the actual place. Clicking “I’m Attending” on an Event becomes the event itself, and then everything happening in “reality” is somehow an afterthought. The really important part about the concert I attended there was the poster, the names, the cigarette-smoking and checking each other out in the lobby –not the music.

A deft handling of virtual reality can also work great for obtaining funding and support from faraway organizations (both Western and non-Western, mind you) hoping to promote “inter-cultural exchange”. The Cinematheque is a brave and fine project; there is nothing cynical there in its own particular exploitation of the moment’s cosmopolitan-Universalist trends. But, I think in a similar way to Barrada’s photographs, it does play a new cultural representation politics that seem to be necessary to stay afloat in the art world these days.

Yto Barrada, Radeau dans figuier Ètrangleur (Ficus Macrophylla), (Raft in Strangler Figtree), 2005/2010 
C-Print, 150 x 150 cm 
Copyright Yto Barrada & Galerie Sfeir-Semler, Hamburg/Beirut

Barrada’s work—her photographs and the cinema—“interprets” an Other for Western audiences in a manner that appears less exoticist and more palatable. Then, for non-Western audiences, she (perhaps inadvertently) implies that the new leader in global hipness is pan-Arab youth.( As if the aesthetics of the Arab Spring had not done enough already).

It’s almost as if Barrada, an insider and an outsider at once, is one of the few with the right to empty this North African location of its topicality, its exoticism—and to some extent its warmth—and somehow make it cool. I suggest calling Barrada’s “representation” of Tangier a sort of new-cosmo-digitalitan-hyperreality. This is not Orientalist tourist photography, nor is the style hippie, sensual, seedy, Beat, or any other from-the-outside look. It is a completely agnostic, cosmopolitan aesthetic: narrativeless Contemporary Art Mono-Culture.

Tangier, welcome to the fold.

Installation shot Yto Barrada:
Riffs at the Deutsche Guggenheim
Mathias Schormann
Copyright Yto Barrada, Deutsche Guggenheim 

Mara Goldwyn

Mara Goldwyn is a Jane of many trades and mistress of none. Amateur detective, shrine-builder, pop ethnographer, field sound recorder, skeptic, trash collector, installation artist, paranoic-critical method illustrator, analog photographer, accessories designer, anti-capitalist, art writer and radio personality are among some and none of the adjectives and nouns she applies to herself. Further Mara-originating verbal and sonic commentary can be found at http://www.maragoldwyn.com

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