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The idea of (im)mobility in the work of Emily Jacir

For Palestinians it is generally complicated to explain where they are from, as their places of origin are beyond reach or no longer exist as Arab towns and villages. Lod was an Arab town named Lydda, also Ramleh whose 60,000 inhabitants were expelled by Israeli forces in 1948, when Israel’s war of statehood began. During the Palestinian-Israeli conflict around 780,000 Palestinians were exiled from their homeland and dispersed across all over the world; stateless refugees whose number has grown to over four million. “If I could do anything for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?” This question posed the Palestinian American artist Emily Jacir to Palestinians, who are both, denied entry or restricted to move freely in their land, for her highly regarded project Where We Come From (2002-2003). As the artists Mona Hatoum and Rashid Masharawi, Jacir deals with the Palestinian diaspora and her work emerges from personal experiences passing through places and crossing borders. By her neo-conceptual artworks and performances, which are based on photo-text presentations, task-based performances or the use of media and newspaper advertisements, Jacir’s work speaks about what it means to be a Palestinian today, both in the context of exile and living under occupation. How movement through places and cultures, either voluntary or forced, is reflected in her work, shall be looked at in detail, by examining the idea of (im)mobility in Emily Jacir’s work. T.J. Demos essay Desire in diaspora is used as a main source, along with the exhibition catalogue Emily Jacir – belongings: Arbeiten/Works 1998 – 2003 including an interview with Jacir by Stella Rollig and with contributions from John Menick, Edward W. Said and others.[1] With reference to a selection of Emily Jacir’s works from earlier projects, such as Change/Exchange (1998), along with Crossing Surda (2002) and From Texas with Love (2002), to her later artwork Where We Come From (2002-2003), I will analyse the idea of (im)mobility as the ability or inability to move freely or under compulsion.

In 1998, while in residence at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, Emily Jacir produced Change/Exchange, which can be seen as a thematic starting point for much of her following works and a departure from her earlier painting and sculpture.[2] In her project Jacir traded one hundred American dollars for French Francs, losing a small amount to currency exchange rates, then converted the Francs back into dollars, and repeated this process until the sum, after sixty-seven times exchange fee, was completely exhausted. The piece, documenting the repeated exchange until only $ 2,45 in coins remained that no agency was willing to accept for conversion, displays photographs of the currency exchange offices paired with receipts of the transactions. Based on a simple neo-conceptual system Jacir’s project visualizes the economical loss caused by capitalist exchange rooted in dilemmas of travel and crossing international borders. Besides, the currency exchanges are ‘portals for global economy of continual transactions,’ as T.J. Demos has appropriately described.[3] Exchange and passing borders is never free and their costs differ from location to location. By a rudimentary currency exchange Jacir illustrates a back and forth relating to movement through places, border crisscrossing and migration, which also becomes a subject matter of the artist’s subsequent works that deal with it only more personal and political.

In My America (I am still here) (2000), which derived from a similar concept as Change/Exchange, Jacir bought several goods from every store at the World Trade Center Mall and later returned her purchases. Now, an unlimited back and forth seems to be possible. Photographs present these goods and the shopping bags together with receipts of the full refund of Jacir’s thirty-three purchases and returns. This artwork may reveal certain advantages of living in America that allow one to realize consumerist fantasies of infinite mobility and live them out. Yet, Jacir’s parenthetical statement ‘I am still here’ may thus express the impossibility or undesirability of other returns, as she is still in America.[4] Both pieces operate with repeated exchange that visualizes the commodities’ ability of free and infinite movement through global markets and across international borders, whereas individuals are restricted and denied entry into their homelands and certain territories. By contrasting forms of easy exchanges Jacir points out the human beings’ restricted freedom of movement caused by political instrumental barriers as the authorities of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict induce, and simultaneously emphasizes the absurdity of such barriers.

Traveling from one place to another and living in two different cultures are central to Jacir’s life that is also reflected in her work: The series of drawings From Paris to Riyadh (Drawings for my mother) (1999-2001), consisting of white vellum paper marked with black ink abstract forms that may be associated with patterns for garments of paper dolls, yet correspond to the exposed skin of the models in an issue of the “Vogue” magazine. The work stems from an autobiographical experience and a simple matter of fact to bring the magazines into the country. While traveling by plane to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, where Jacir’s family lived during her childhood, her mother would have to censor the illegal sections of her fashion magazines, lest airport inspectors confiscate them. Ironically, the black patterns call attention to the allegedly appealing parts of the female bodies instead of hiding them. Many spectators mistakenly viewed the drawings as a critical commentary on the repression of Middle Eastern Woman, but for Jacir this work reflected negatively on both, the Eastern and Western society. She has stated it is about the equally discomfort and suppression, which she has felt in both places: ‘Being back and forth between these two spaces – one of commodification’ and objectifying the image of woman and ‘the other of banning the image of the female body.’[5]

Further, as an aspect of movement through spaces, Emily Jacir meditates the effect of travel restrictions. The video Crossing Surda (a record of going to and from work) documents Jacir’s daily twenty-minute walk across the infamous Surda checkpoint manned by Israel military to get from her home in Ramallah to Birzeit University, where she was teaching. Intended to do a recording for herself, she cut a whole in her bag and clandestinely filmed her quotidian commute for eight days. The recorded travel brings the spectator through a landscape of several concrete barriers, often marked with the Israeli flag, and occasionally shows ordinary Palestinians’ encounters with Israeli soldiers. Based on her own and many Palestinians’ experience Crossing Surda exposes the frustration provoked by endless checkpoints and the loss of hours by crossing those border controls. This artwork provides an account of the humiliating conditions ordinary individuals endure under occupation. Besides, the recording particularly reveals the prohibition on the representation of such checkpoints.[6]

As an experience very different from living in Palestine with an oppressive system of Israeli roadblocks and controls, in the video From Texas with Love Emily Jacir drives one hour freely through the Texan landscape wherever she desires to go without being stopped and listens to music.[7] Jacir directed this artwork to Palestinians under occupation and posed them the question: “If you had the freedom to get in a car and drive for one hour without being stopped (imagine no Israeli military occupation; no Israeli soldiers, no Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks, no ‘bybass’ roads), what song would you listen to?” The selected fifty-one songs were very different: some amusing, some melancholy, including American pop music, as well as Arab nationalistic hymns.

Jacir has stated about From Texas with Love: ‘The piece was about being in a place so incredible and beautiful and being able to drive freely and to listen to music, and at the same time wanting to cry, because this cannot happen back home.’[8] Her artwork expresses on the one hand freedom in mobility, yet at the same time exposes the reality that Palestinians are not able to move freely through their homeland and the video imagines only a ‘momentary fantasy’[9] of freedom in Palestine, as one watches a video recorded in an American state. The expression of entire freedom thus dramatizes an extensive unfreedom.

Emily Jacir’s artistic work culminates in her project Where we come from (2002-2003), which is concerned with the possibility or impossibility of movement. The piece is linked deeply with Jacir’s personal life as she has explained in an interview with Stella Rollig: ‘it is coming from the experience of spending my whole life going back and forth between Palestine and other parts of the world. I am always taking things back and forth for other people.’[10] Her ability to move relatively freely in Israel, as an American passport holder, leaded Jacir to her action to help Palestinians – both those in exile who are forbidden entry into their homeland, as well as those who are living under occupation – by asking them if she could do anything for them, anywhere in Palestine and promised to realize their desires. The responses ranged from simple practical requests, such as playing soccer with a Palestinian boy or paying a phone bill, to highly emotional pleas as going on a date with a Palestinian girl that the exile has only spoken to on the phone. One man demanded: “Go to my mother’s grave in Jerusalem on her birthday and put flowers and pray.” A snapshot of the mother’s grave with its tombstone shadowed by Jacir’s shape documents, together with the man’s request in Arab and English in black lettering on a white panel next to the colour photograph, Jacir’s fulfilling of the man’s wish. A short notation under the request tells the spectator that the man, Munir, lives only a few kilometres away in Bethlehem, but was denied entry to Jerusalem by the Israeli authorities. Jacir could go to his mother’s grave instead: as an agent of fulfilling desires Jacir acts as a vehicle for the wishes of others, yet her visit remains vicarious and phantasmic.

Movement in terms of travel, migration or translation even only desired is deeply concerned in this project: The spectator faces the diptychs divided into one text panel and one photograph. The visual transition from language to image seems effortless, with one shift of the eyes from the request to its photographically captured actualization. Yet, for many unfortunate just this translation from desire to fulfillment, which we often take for granted, persist unachievable and thus can only be imagined and wished.

This project reflects on the condition of exile by Jacir’s engagement with the idea of deterritorialisation in artistic practices of the 1990s, drawing from the premise of site specificity, which is central to conceptualist practice and reconfiguring them in the context of the history and presence of Palestine. Edward W. Said has stated that exile is a ravaging experience and represents ‘the unhealable rift between a human being and a native place, between self and its true home.’ A gap that separates one from ‘the nourishment of tradition, family, and geography.’[11] For exiles, there does not exist site specificity, as they have been displaced from their homelands and forced to move through places as refugees. According to T.J. Demos the impossibility of sitedness for exiles is one of the consequences why Jacir has rejected site specific work, which means that an art object is dependent for its impact or meaning on a particular place in which it is sited. Obviously, the Palestinian diaspora and its conditions, in a legalistic, political, economical and cultural sense, are the subjects Jacir investigates, and which resist any geographical delimitation. Besides, Jacir’s ‘fragmentational’ work including the use of a variety of mediums, such as photography, text and video, along with her use of distribution systems, as museums, galleries and media like newspapers and internet and also her choice of different sites as Israel/Palestine and New York refuses any kind of site specificity.[12] Jacir’s project thus is characterized by displacement and far from the possibility of sitedness.

By analyzing a selection from earlier to later artworks, I have sought to exemplify the idea of (im)mobility in the work of Emily Jacir that derives from her own experiences of moving through spaces and traveling from one place to another as an Palestinian exile. In her earlier works, such as Change/Exchange and My America (I am still here), Jacir points out the ridiculousness of barriers on people’s lives, caused by political authorities, by visualizing simple repeated exchanges and contrasting the inequality between individuals’ unfreedom of movement and the free mobility of commodities as products of the capitalistic world. These early projects deal with the Palestinians’ life with its condition in a more indirect way than Jacir’s following artworks: The autobiographical work From Paris to Riyadh (Drawings for my mother) emerged from personal experiences and describes mobility as a back and forth between two places, Paris and Riyadh, and their different cultures. At the same time it can be seen as a criticism of both, Western and Eastern societies that either treat the image of women as a commodity or ban the image of a female figure. Jacir’s projects are often related to each other and thus dramatize the impossible mobility of unfortunate Palestinians, as exemplified with Crossing Surda, which documents the effect of travel restrictions and From Texas with Love that is directed to Palestinians living under occupation and represents a fully freedom of mobility in America in order to point out the unfreedom of many Palestinians. The last analyzed project Where We Come From concerns Jacir’s freedom of mobility as an American passport holder in contrast to the unfortunate Palestinians who are refused to live freely and interact or participate in the world like others.

[1] Demos, 2003 and Rollig/Rückert, 2004, see bibliography.

[2] Menick, p. 26.

[3] Demos, p. 72.

[4] Demos, p. 75.

[5] Interview with Stella Rollig, p. 19.

[6] Demos, p. 67 and Finkelpearl/Smith, p. 75.

[7] Jacor developed this work when she was in West Texas for a residency.

[8] Rollig, p. 18.

[9] Menick, p. 31.

[10] Rollig, p. 9.

[11] Said ‘Reflections on Exile,’ Granta 13 (Autmun 1984), cited in Demos, p. 69.

[12] Demos, p. 69.


Baur, Andreas/ Roland Wäspe. Emily Jacir (exh. cat., Kunstmuseum St. Gallen/ Villa Merkel, Galerien der Stadt Esslingen am Neckar). Nürnberg, 2008.

Demos, T.J. ‘Desire in Diaspora: Emily Jacir,’ in Art Journal (Winter 2003): pp. 68-78.

Finkelpearl, Tom/Smith, Valerie. Generation 1.5 (exh. cat., Queens Museum of Art). New York, 2009.

Menick, John: ‘Undiminished Returns: The work of Emily Jacir, 1998 – 2002’, in Emily Jacir: Belongings: Works, 1998-2003, eds. Rollig, Stella/ Rückert, Genoveva, pp. 20-45. (exh. cat., O.K. Centrum, Linz). Linz, 2004.

Rollig, Stella: ‘Emily Jacir – Interview,’ in Emily Jacir: Belongings: Works, 1998-2003, eds. Rollig, Stella/ Rückert, Genoveva, pp. 6-19. (exh. cat., O.K. Centrum, Linz). Linz, 2004.

Said, Edward W.: ‘Emily Jacir – Where We Come From’, in Emily Jacir: Belongings: Works, 1998-2003, eds. Rollig, Stella/ Rückert, Genoveva, pp. 46-49. (exh. cat., O.K. Centrum, Linz). Linz, 2004.

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Posted by on October 26, 2011 in History of Art


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