With the onset of modernity, rapid environmental change has radically altered the relationships between people and their habitat. As the nature and extent of the disruption, displacement and dispossession experienced is contingent upon the particularities of time and space, a whole range of discourses has spun and popularised various culturally specific terms which attempt to articulate the complexities. The Portuguese have saudade, the Japanese have mono no aware and the Germans have heimat.
Heimat, which apparently “has no straightforward English translation”, is the thrust of Homeland/Heimat, the exhibition organised by the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore. The show describes heimat as “a reaction to the onset of modernity, a loss of individuality and intimate community, further alluding to the relationship between people and space, being (apart from house and home) village, city, State, nation, homeland, language or religion – effectively one’s ‘identity’, the totality of the circumstances in which a person grows up”.
The explanation of the term is so verbose that I can’t help but wonder if a process of constitution instead of articulation is taking place. To what extent are supposed emotional states such as heimat the product, instead of the stimulus, of discourse? The skeptic would perhaps even question if the exhibition is nothing more than an attempt to complicate what is really just a discharge of plain nostalgia.
Before we dismiss Homeland/Heimat as such, I think it is paramount to engage with the works in their own terms. What exactly is heimat? How real is this emotional state and how much of it is discursively constituted? How is it different from plain nostalgia? Do the works on exhibition succeed in conveying the supposed complexities?
While the distinctiveness of heimat may have been exaggerated, I believe there are subtleties to be teased out. If nostalgia is a generalised yearning for an idealised past, heimat appears to convey something far more adhesive and intractable. Central to the concept of heimat is that of space. It envisions the environment, or in other words, “the totality of [one's] circumstances” as an extension of the self. Thus, when the physical self is dislocated from his environment, the individual experiences a fissure within his hitherto uninterrupted identity.
The works which best articulate this emotional state are those which actually move beyond the materialist fixations of nostalgia, which more often than not, cling itself to physical remnants of a bygone past. While the physical does figure significantly in heimat, the word, as it appears to me, also encompasses the far more intangible aspects of space.
The two photographic series by Brenda L. Croft reflect how the notion of home is the result of a complex interaction of social, political and historical movements. Drawing from the collection of the artist’s father, the works position an everyman against the evolving socio-cultural landscape of Australia in the early twentieth century.
The background of Croft’s father is the lynchpin of her works. The title of west/ward/bound specifically points to his identity as an “assimilated” Aboriginal man; “west” referring to “westernised, “ward” referring to him being a ward of the state in his childhood and “bound” referring to his constriction by the discriminatory laws of the time. In the work, we see the old photographs of the man and his wife magnified and printed on large vinyl banners. The visibly aged photographs were taken during a road trip the couple took after their wedding. Essentially, the work asks: what does heimat mean for a group of people born into an itinerant life of perpetual displacement? The photographs unfold like a travelogue. The physical environment is always changing. The only constant, however, is the couple and the relationship between them. Is that perhaps where the meaning of homeland lies?
Imprinted rather ominously over the images are the titles of the photographs, provoking contemplation on the relationship between the inscription and the image. This technique takes on a poignantly ironic dimension in Croft’s accompanying piece, She’ll be right mate: Strangers in a Strange Land. The photographs in this series focus on the various work sites Croft’s father laboured in over the years, in the process crossing paths with the influx of new immigrants in postwar Australia.
Featured among them is the Snowy Mountain Hydro-Electric Scheme, a massive nationwide project which took over 25 years to complete and regarded as a defining point in Australian history. The project brought over more than a hundred thousand immigrants to the country, mostly driven by postwar poverty in their homeland. Today, the project is a symbol of the transnational utopianism which gave birth to the Australian identity. Even when featuring the workers busy at work, the photographs project a relaxed, innocent glow, effusing with the optimism of a new beginning.
However, the layering of the politicised text over the images reveal the uncomfortable realities beneath the seemingly benign imagery. In one particular print, the text reads: “a hard but simple life, men bonded like brothers; though their mother tongue linked each of them to other places, other times long gone”.
As the new migrants carve into and blow up the native land, both literally and metaphorically, they displace the indigenous people from a terrain that was once physically and culturally theirs to inhabit. One form of displacement had led to another. Adding to the irony is the involvement of the artist’s father, who had been uprooted from his Aboriginal roots and assimilated into this new community of immigrants hacking away at indigenous ground.
Palestinian artist Basma Al Sharif’s video piece, We Began by Measuring Distance possesses similar social, political and historical overtones, this time in connection with the Palestinian diaspora. The video opens with two individuals stretching out a piece of cloth, apparently using it as an apparatus for “measuring distance”. The text on the video lists the distances between various cities, culminating in the 78km separating Gaza and Jerusalem, stating how the political gulf between the two regions is not abridged by the short physical distance between them. While this first segment appears rather stale and uninspired, the following narrative sequence featuring “the Virgin Forest” is brilliantly layered. Footage of a magical subterranean world inhabited by jellyfishes floating and pulsating in poetic rhythm is juxtaposed with that of white phosphorous shells exploding over Gaza City, set against the sound of a languid classical score.
The sequence can be interpreted in many ways. On one hand, it exposes the paradoxical relationship between violence and beauty. It also contemplates the limits of representation in image and art, probing the gap between artistic metaphor and its referent. On a more personal note, this segment appears to reflect the artist’s own disenchantment towards images disseminated in the mass media. The phosphorous bombs are regarded almost with aesthetic disinterestedness. To her, they are just aesthetic forms divested of any extraneous meaning.
Siamak Fallah is a refugee from Iran, “exiled” by the country for his practice of the Bahá’í Faith. His ongoing work, From the Mother Tongue, presented here as an installation, is a reflection of the tensions between his personal spirituality and the laws which govern a theocratic state. In the video I Ran from Iran, we see an out-of-focus footage of the artist’s mouth appearing to perform a set of rituals. He mumbles the words “I ran from Iran” repetitively, stuffs money into his mouth, strokes his beard and eventually shaves his face. Magnifying these private, unphotogenic and at times sordid acts as a wall projection brings us far too close to the artist’s body for comfort. The sense of restlessness experienced by Fallah is transferred to the viewer.
The symbolically charged meaning of these gestures adds to the work’s provocative nature. The shaving of the beard, in particular, alludes to how condemned Bahá’ís have their beards burnt before being undressed, paraded around town and publicly executed. In Iran, the beard is a potent symbol of religious piety.
The rest of the installation appears equally stripped down, as a reflection of Fallah’s belief in spiritual “nothingness”. A nondescript text on the black wall reads “THERE IS NO COLOUR BEYOND BLACK”, while tiny lines of calligraphic text form what appears to be a circular vortex of dust on the wall. A map of Persia lies at the corner of the space. There is the mystical, the political, the geographical as well as the personal all embedded within this sparse installation.
In comparison, the works by Hayati Mokhtar and Qiu Anxiong lack the critical nuances seen in those of the earlier artists. While they are actually the most beautiful parts of the show, the clichéd and shallow expressions of sentiment present in Mokhtar’s and Qiu’s works are problematic.
Mokhtar’s Penawar positions two videos depicting the clearing out of an old family home in Malaysia. On the left is a static shot of the exterior of the colonial-era building; and next to it, slow tracking shots explore the vacant interiors. Two conceptions of the same space are juxtaposed here: the former identifies the building as a mark of a shared communal past while the latter sees it as a repository of personal memories.
A similar technique is used in Mokhtar’s No. 55 Main Road. Three video projections capture the eponymous home of eighty-seven year old Uncle Chang, which is facing imminent demolition. In the centre, we see a static shot of the old man resting idyllically in his humble abode. To the left, a tracking shot unfolding at a lobomotising pace travels across the row of shophouses. To the right, a series of close-up shots capture the minute details of the living space. Throughout, we hear the enveloping traffic and see the flickers of light created as the vehicles pass by.
The piece is undeniably rich in detail, character and sentiment, but ultimately it offers little beyond a flight of fancy into a realm of rustic charm – a realm reductively defined against the adversarial urban world.
But the work that really lives up to its name is Qiu’s Nostalgia, which features large wall projections of the rural landscape of the artist’s hometown, Chengdu. The static, longitudinal and monochrome shots are composed to imitate Chinese landscape paintings. The vistas are essentially soaked in dripping melancholy, almost made to embody a feeble, dying spirit gasping for air. Such romantic conflation of the physical and spiritual is often a sign of a nostalgia overdose.
Of course, I must qualify that I’m not deriding Qiu’s or Mokhtar’s works on the basis of them taking the nostalgic route. It would be criticism of the most pointless kind if I were to dismiss a work for doing precisely what it had set out to do. Likewise, it would be foolish for anyone to deny ourselves of the pleasures that sentiment can offer by resisting any work which attempt lyricism.
However, I was expecting a little more given that the show is based on such an intricately woven discourse on heimat. In this day and age, there is certainly also a greater need to talk about nostalgia and its variations, instead of just wallow in it. There appears to be an overwhelming surfeit of works these days, particularly in lens-based media, which capitalise on our inclination for all things old and fuzzy. The problem comes when nostalgia turns parasitic, clinging onto the things that constitute “the good old days” while fostering an amnesia for the more unsavoury details of the past. More crucially, nostalgia in excess inhibits us, making us dwell on past instead of imagine the future.
Another minor quibble is the presentation of the works given that there are so many lengthy video works, which demand a great deal of patience on the part of the viewer. But once you are able to get by that, there is plenty to unravel from the seemingly untranslatable word that is heimat.
Homeland/Heimat ran at ICA Gallery 1 & 2 at LASALLE College of the Arts from 8 July to 10 August 2010. Admission is free.