SFMOMA installed unusual wall-text in Emily Jacir gallery

SFMOMAJacirWWCFdetail.jpgThe San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which recently acquired Emily Jacir's Where We Come From, attached an unusual wall-text to the work when it first exhibited it this winter.

Where We Come From (2001-2003) was the breakthrough work for Jacir, a Palestinian-born artist who splits her time between Ramallah, Rome and New York City. Jacir made the work by using her U.S. passport to gain entrance to Palestinian lands normally difficult or impossible to reach with a Palestinian passport. Once in Palestine, she fulfilled the wishes of Palestinians who had sent her requests, acting as a kind of DJ of geopolitical wanderlust. Jacir then photo-documented her performance of achingly simple requests: "Go to Haifa and play soccer with the first Palestinian boy you see on the street," and so on. The finished work features Jacir's disposable camera-style snapshots along with the text of the requests she received, printed in both English and Arabic. A detail is at left and below.

The 'extra' SFMOMA wall-text, printed in subscript beneath a more traditional museum-style text read:

SFMOMA is committed to exhibiting and acquiring works by local, national and international artists that represent a diversity of viewpoints and positions. Works of art can engender valuable discussion about a range of topics including those that are difficult and contested, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Additional information about Emily Jacir's Where We Come From, including a list of frequently asked questions, is available at the information desk in the Haas Atrium.
It is common for museum wall-text to provide art-historical context for a work of art or an explanation of how the work came to be made. (SFMOMA's primary wall text does just that.) But while museums regularly show work that addresses complicated topics, it's extremely unusual for a museum to install a wall-text directly excusing a work's geo- or socio-political roots. There is no such text attached to SFMOMA's online collection record of the work.

While Where We Come From specifically references the Palestinian diaspora and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it also touches on familiar art historical themes of the journey and the emotional pain of diaspora and separation. The 'extra' wall-text seems to reduce the Jacir to a work of art about one political situation.

GoberNewspaper92Detail.jpgSFMOMA's inclusion of the text raises troubling questions about when a museum should insert text between a work of art and its audience.

For example: In a gallery adjacent to Jacir's Where We Come From, SFMOMA installed Robert Gober's Newspaper (1992, detail at right), in which Gober juxtaposes the way the media gives prime coverage and placement to athletes and heterosexual families against the way the media marginalizes gays and lesbians, including gays who have been the victims of violence. The work also questions the way conservatives and the media define and present so-called family values. SFMOMA did not place a content note to the Gober explaining that that a subject of the work -- the place of gays and lesbians in American society -- is "difficult and contested."

Another work in 'Passageworks,' a Luc Tuymans painting that suggests George W. Bush and Laura Bush dancing on the seal of Texas at an inaugural ball, was also without such a label. I can recall no similar SFMOMA-authored label on a range of works that address or portray potentially "difficult and contested" topics, such as Mitch Epstein's Amos Coal Power Plant, Raymond, West Virginia, 2004, which addresses the use of coal for power generation within a body of work that addresses energy and climate change or William Kentridge's Tide Table, which examines the trade-offs inherent in capitalist systems.

JacirWheredetail2.jpgJacir declined to comment on SFMOMA's 'additional' text. Where We Come From has been on view at many museums and galleries, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Jacir confirmed that never has an institution added a text 'explaining' it the way SFMOMA has. Jacir confirmed that SFMOMA did not tell her that it would be adding the text to her work and that it did not tell her that it would be distributing an FAQ about her, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and what the museum's acquisition of the work might say about the museum itself.

In a series of emails museum spokesperson Libby Garrison said, "The decision [to add the text] was made by the curators and the director, the trustees were not involved. It was made because when the work was on view (without wall text) during the acquisition process, we received numerous letters of concern from visitors who saw it on the wall. In response and for the exhibition, we felt we should contextualize the piece acknowledging the sensitivities that surround it. We deeply believe in the merits of her work but of course, are not taking political sides."

Despite repeated requests, the museum refused to make any of those decision-makers available for comment. The museum also refused to release or detail visitor "concerns." 

JacirWhereWeComeFromdet3.jpgThe museum refused to explain whether it had a policy for determining when it believes a text such as the one added to Where We Come From is appropriate. When asked whether the museum had put a "similar note" on a work of art, Garrison said that the museum had done so.

"We have provided statements for other sensitive exhibitions/works. For the Regan Louie exhibition we stated the following: 'Please note: This exhibition contains sexually explicit images that may not be appropriate for all viewers. SFMOMA recommends that adults preview the exhibition before sharing it with children.' Here are a few others: 'The images projected in Anthony Discenza's November create a strobe-like effect. Viewers with light sensitivities please be advised.' And 'Pierre Huyghe's The Third Memory includes graphic language that may not be appropriate for all viewers.' "

The collection exhibition in which the Jacir (and the Gober) were installed, Passageworks, closed on Monday, Jan. 19. I first noticed the wall-text on Dec. 22, but I delayed publication in an attempt to give SFMOMA the fullest possible opportunity to address the issue.

Related: Primary text after the jump. Dan Phiffer uploaded SFMOMA's Jacir FAQ to Flickr. The second page is here.
Emily Jacir's Where We Come From

The struggle between Israel and Palestine affects many people throughout the world in dramatic and different ways. In Where We Come From (2001-3), the Palestinian American artist Emily Jacir focuses on the daily lives of Palestinian civilians, addressing conditions of belonging, mobility and immobility, and borders. She trains her sensitive eye on the political realities of this region in the Middle East, providing insight into the lived impact of oftentimes grave circumstances  and offering us access to a part of her own heritage. This presentation points to SFMOMA's commitment to encouraging a diversity of viewpoints and positions.

Jacir, who divides her time between New York and Ramallah, holds an American passport and is able to move with relative ease in and out of Palestinian territories and Israel. Recognizing that many people do not share this privilege, she asked individuals, primarily Palestinians living in places as far-flung as Montreal, Paris, Houston, New York, and Ramallah: "If I could do anything for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?" The requests that followed ranged from the mundane to the poetic and from the specific to the expansive. Jacir completed each of them to the best of her ability, documenting the project in text panels paired with photographs. Each pair includes a written request, in both English and Arabic, detailing the individual's name, location, and passport information alongside an explanation of why travel, for him or her, is impossible. A photograph of the task being accomplished or item being procured appears next to each text. Jacir, acting as the surrogate for each individual, is glimpsed only obliquely in the photographs, even as her trace is everywhere.

Using sophisticated conceptual strategies, Jacir's work comments on the condition of exile with sensitivity and pathos. A diffuse and diasporic community begins to emerge, one that despite its connective tissue allows space for individual voices to remain distinct and preserves the unique character of their stories. For Jacir, the work is an extension of her own experiences. "I've spent my entire life going back and forth, connecting with people, family, and friends," she explains. "Carrying things back and forth was natural, something that I was already doing anyway."
January 22, 2009 8:08 AM |

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