“This is how space begins,” writes Georges Perec “with words only, signs traced on the blank page. To describe space: to name it, to trace it, until in the end the land was only separated from the sea by a continuous ribbon of text.”
I will begin with the act of pointing.
Lack masquerades itself as desire and desire takes the shape of a space. It pulses as the auto-focus on the camera hunts for the edge, or any point that settles it onto the horizon. She appears in the frame as a mere voice at first and asks the viewer—directs, rather, because she plays with the ambiguity of the grammar—to look over there. She calls for the attention through pitch and intonation. She then appears and instructs: “Look at that rock over there,” and she leaves. She gets out of the way so that one can see “that rock over there.”
In her short film “The Island of the Dead,” Beth collar points, urgently and persistently, over and over. She points, so there must be something there to see. A small island sits in the middle of a body of water. No other land is visible.
Perhaps she is on an island, or on a boat, but the viewer gets the strong sense that she is looking at an image of an image, rather than a picture of a rock in the round. The picture is flat and coarse. Hints of sounds of the waves signal movement, but movement is in and of itself barely detectable in the course of the film. Her finger hunts, like the camera, for its target. She points to this “island of the dead” as if she were uncertain whether the viewfinder, her index, and the island are intersecting. She urges me to “look” over there, to “look” and to “see” the island of the dead. This requires sight and perception. Repetition follows display, reified and emptied. The incessant request to look and to see the rock over there forces us to be rooted here.
Time seemed to fold over itself and look at her. She took away one subject matter to allow the appearance of another. The first subject matter is herself, the second is the island of the dead, floating within a sea. She begs us to look, as if its existence is contingent upon us seeing that it’s there.
It is unclear whether Collar is inviting us to contemplate what lies beyond death. She is forcing us into the present, and by insisting we “look over there,” she denies us the agency to look anywhere else—let alone beyond the island.
Separation, adoration and denial are attitudes towards the unseen, and yet they can be seen. We read them into landscapes, which then reflect them and make them visible, unmissable. They reflect lines of separation, and they encourage you to recede within their grandness. Collar exists within the universe of “The Island of the Dead.” She can get at what it is—if that is what she wants—with an image, a simulacrum, or a haunting. The universe is not seeable, but its images are.
To talk about separation is to excavate a point of entanglement. Entanglement begins with language, and in order to excavate it, it has to be released from its translation. The artist can function as a translator of images, allowing them to escape the shackles of the tongue. Walter Benjamin writes: “It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language that is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work.”
The image had been arranged to be ready for some particular event. The time of its purposeful operation had dissolved and pooled into the containers of many living memories. The way an incident occurs or a memory unfolds reflects nothing about the incident or memory itself, but instead reflects something about the person involved in the happening and the telling: in the telling and retelling of stories, people reveal both the action and themselves.
Deflecting from speech in the face of the sublime is the first source of suffering, as explained by Gaston Bachelard: “[it] lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak. It was born in the moment we accumulated silent things within us.”
In silence, you hunted around among your memories. Spaces in which words had never pried before. You tried to assign meanings to these words: convergences meant the meeting of two points in space, perhaps even the meeting of two souls. Convergence was the desire that arose from the lack of a clear resolution in the story. The lack of narrative plots, twists and turns. You looked at the landscape and desired answers, demanding of it an explanation. Perception, you thought, was nothing but “the inner resonance to influences nearest at hand.” It is these influences: the sea, the sky, and the horizon line that resonated with you. They, at once, made you see, and imposed a moratorium on looking.
“The sea is treacherous,” proclaims the voice of artist Lara Atallah as footage of the waves of the Mediterranean Sea roll through the short film “A Moratorium On Looking” (2019). The short film troubles the relationship between beauty and terror. “I suppose it’s strange to think that something so beautiful could be so deadly,” continues the narrator. In juxtaposing the picturesque beauty of the landscape with words that instill a sense of impending doom, the artist brings to the front how the duplicitous nature of beauty lies in its ability to stealthily bring about demise. Atallah alludes to the sound of the waves, compares it to a lullaby that “assuages the most troubled of souls.” And then, as if it were an ominous foretelling of events to come, she poses the question: “But what about that other sea? The one that robs and plunders. The covert mercenary that claims the lives of those who’ve lost their right to land leaving them at the mercy of its liquid entrails?” “A Moratorium On Looking” anchors the sea’s gentle waves within the peripheries of terror. What was once beautiful stops being so by virtue of becoming a menace: a dark devouring entity. The short film functions as a testament to this meeting of opposite ends: life and death, beauty and terror. John Berger writes: “A photograph is a result of the photographer’s decision that it is worth recording, that this particular event or this particular object has been seen.”
At one point in the film the artist takes a polaroid photograph of the landscape. She then deposits the photograph on a rock and allows it to materialize before the screen. The wait seems to last an eternity. By forcing the viewer to look at the photograph, she imposes regulations on looking. “By virtue of its existence, I can claim to have stood on that shoreline.” To claim your presence, by means of registering it through a photograph, is an act of asserting your right to this presence. Berger continues to argue that the only decision a photographer can take is actually “the moment he chooses to isolate;” but it is this particular limitation that actually gives a photograph its power and strength: “What it shows invokes what is not shown.” The photograph, through showing this stark contrast between the sea on a photographic surface and the sea in its motion, invokes what is not shown: beauty in motion and terror in stillness can coexist in one landscape. The sight of one does not cancel out the other. However, the desire for the beautiful will still supersede fear of the terrible.
Eros, the Greek word for desire, simultaneously denotes a “want” and a “lack.” It is the desire for that which is missing. Desire can thus only be for what is lacking in sight; it is forever “at home in a life of want.” Desiring perception is an act that bears within itself the need to reach for what is not there, to formulate what is presented in sight as something more. It is the act of making coherent the heap of images that crowd thinking.
To relinquish desire,
To represent it as hunger,
A lack is a thought,
Turned into a subject,
Turned into an act,
And within this act
Lies the desire for that which is unattainable.
I am brought back to the void that one feels in certain spaces, or in the presence of particular landscapes. I try to call on my senses: sight, touch, and smell. Absence is a physical void, an emptiness where there once was a presence. It is an enemy. A void can also be a self-imposed exile: from one’s place of birth, from one’s mother tongue, from oneself. Gustavo Perez Firmat writes: “The fact that I am writing to you in English already falsifies what I wanted to tell you. My subject: how to explain to you that I don’t belong to English though I belong nowhere else.”
An escape—while being a possible course of action—can also be invisible because it is an idea. One can even venture to say that it is a desire. Toni Morrison’s argument that “invisible things are not necessarily not-there” encourages the complementary gesture of investigating how that which appears to be absent can indeed be a seething presence. The absence which an escape provides is an intense form of presence.
Etel Adnan alludes that it is in the water and not in heaven that her enemy lives. This enemy of hers is not even a person: it is often but the passage of time. Hers is a vision of a world in which there is no “pure” and there is no original. We borrow from here and there. The traces of other people’s wars, loves, and lies are inscribed on our bodies and in our minds—often our own histories and infatuations get entangled with these traces. We
are the products of everything that came before us: We are the coffee stain on a book, the scar that refuses to heal, the fabricated memory born out of a photo we once saw in a family album. Our constitutions are a mysterious thing. There is, however, something bracing about this refusal of resolution.
The most she ever wants to do is show you the end of her sentence.
Sahar Khraibani is a multi-disciplinary artist, writer, and designer from Beirut (Lebanon), currently based in New York City. Her work has been shown in Berlin, Cairo, Abu Dhabi, and Beirut and deals with the intricacies of language and its translation, colonial histories and the tensions between everyday life and condensed geopolitics. Having spent all of her formative years in Lebanon, she is especially focused on the ways in which political landscapes influence creative output, as well as how the land and sea function as emotional repositories for histories that have been written over by borders and international prioritization of resources over people. She is a frequent contributor to Degree Critical and has published an illustrated anthology titled “Loving And Leaving Beirut,” during an artist residency at Beit Waraq in 2017. She received her BFA in Graphic Design with honors from the American University of Beirut in May 2014 and her MFA in Art Writing and Criticism at the School of Visual Arts in New York in May 2019.