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Al-Ani brings the desert to life at the Sackler Gallery
At Georgetown, you can’t walk through Red Square without meeting someone who’s lived in the Middle East. But beyond foreign-service-oriented institutions, there is a popular conception that the Middle East is an uninhabitable wasteland, immortalized by Gulf War news photography and Lawrence of Arabia. Iraqi-born artist Jananne Al-Ani aims to change that.
In her latest exhibit, Shadow Sites: Recent Work by Jananne Al-Ani, on display now through Feb. 10 at the Smithsonian’s labyrinthine, underground Sackler Gallery, the artist showcases two video works that focus on the duality of Middle Eastern landscapes, as both deserts and havens for life. But upon entering the gallery, the viewer is not greeted with videos. Instead, the slate-gray, shadowy space contains six wide-angle, composite photographs of barren and other-worldly Iraqi deserts taken by archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld. These photos, sources of Al-Ani’s inspiration, offer a nice primer for the content viewers are about to witness.
Al-Ani’s two works come to life in the subsequent rooms. The first, the religiously-twinged “The Guide and the Flock,” has an unusual composition, with a small screen sitting inside of a large one. Each shows an image filmed from a single, motionless camera: in the larger, the camera stands in the middle of a desert road, sand on each side seeming to stretch on endlessly, as a man walks silently down it, his back to the camera, shrinking away before fading into thin air. Simultaneously, the small screen takes a different perspective, with a road running horizontally across the field of view, a flock of sheep standing on the opposite side. Periodically, cars and trucks whiz by, the loud din of traffic and horns disproportionately conquering the viewer’s experience. The two viewpoints and jarring interruption of the roaring engines effectively juxtapose the barren, Biblical wasteland of the photographs with the populated world that the Middle East is today.
The second video, “Shadow Sites II,” screens in the next room, and upon entering the viewer is immediately transfixed. Consisting of full-screen aerial images of brown and gray desertscapes, many with beautiful, geometric composition hearkening alien crop circles which melt seamlessly into one another, the video is made hypnotizing by the slow spiraling of the camera into the still image, emerging detail transforming it from a military-esque image (Al-Ani’s inspiration stems from Gulf War-era news reports) to an inhabitable, earthly locale. All the while, the hum of an airplane engine and buzz of a walkie-talkie fill the viewer’s ears. The result is unsettling, with the moving camera ominously mimicking a slow fall to Earth, and the military sounds and images creating a sense of danger and impending doom.
Although Al-Ani’s videos are thought-provoking, well executed, and intensely creative, the layout of the space detracts from their appeal: being greeted with the work of another person is confusing, and the video rooms are so close to one another that the sound from the second intrudes on the first, lessening the intended impact of the bustling traffic on the man’s tranquil walk. Furthermore, the most interesting part of “Shadow Sites II,” and of the entire exhibit, goes almost unnoticed: on a small screen, facing upward on a black platform inside the room, is a close-up of an anthill from which ants busily move in and out. The juxtaposition of this to the larger screen is obvious: immobile camera on moving organisms versus moving camera on still images, detailed shot of organisms versus panoramic view of Earth, life versus desert. This small screen drives Al-Ani’s point home most powerfully, reminding the viewer that these vast, seemingly untouched landscapes support bustling, vibrant life, even at a level that we barely see from our own vantage point.
If the Smithsonian had only provided a better vantage point for the audience, Al-Ani’s message would have been received as clearly as a burst of traffic on an otherwise placid street.