Jananne Al-Ani is an artist whose recent work has done much to illuminate the ways in which modern media can resemble a process of delineation: a drawing or writing with light (photo-graphy) or with motion (cinemato-graphy). The resemblance is established in Shadow Sites I (2010), which reinscribes by means of its own kind of graphic manoeuvre an already existing inscription. A shadow site is a built structure invisible at ground level, but thrown into dramatic relief when viewed from above by the slant of the sun’s rays at dawn or dusk. At such moments, the ground itself becomes, as Al-Ani puts it, a ‘latent photographic image of a past event embedded in the landscape’. In Shadow Sites I, a series of vertical tracking shots scan the record of systematic disturbance drawn or written on the surface of the southern Jordanian desert by centuries of human habitation: field system, quarry, compound, fortification, industrial and agricultural facility. Their soft, grainy texture fosters a captivating dreaminess. But then faintly menacing bursts of atmospheric noise on the soundtrack – the wind, an aeroplane engine – suggest that there are nonetheless questions to be asked both of this particular stretch of terrain and of the methods employed to scan it. What sort of evidence of past events might be revealed by the film’s photographing of the ‘latent photographic image’? Shadow Sites I aims both to evoke and to provoke.
Born in Iraq, Al-Ani moved to the UK with her mother and three sisters in 1980, at the age of thirteen. Ten years later, the unprecedented range and immediacy of Western media coverage of the First Gulf War decisively shaped her understanding of the instrumentality of the visual image. ‘The luckiest man in Iraq,’ General Norman Schwarzkopf can be heard to quip during a notorious news conference, as footage from a missile shows a truck clearing the bridge the missile is about to strike with seconds to spare. This was by no means the first time a varied and in places richly cultivated part of the world had been reduced in representation to a formless virtual desert harbouring elusive troublemakers. Iraq, granted provisional independence under a British administrative mandate after the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, had always been a hard place to occupy and control: mountains to the north, marshlands to the south. Air power proved a cheap and effective solution. In the 1920s, Iraqi airspace became a laboratory for the refinement of reconnaissance techniques. Aerial photography and its rapid translation into cartographic media made it possible for the RAF to bomb and strafe at will wherever insurgency manifested itself. Al-Ani has said that she intended to put the viewer of Shadow Sites I in the position of a pilot on a reconnaissance mission searching for potential targets.
What’s lacking from that scenario is a sense of urgency. The flattened images of terrain teem with detail, but offer little by way of direction or focus. There is no horizon, no vanishing point, no significant chiaroscuro. And so the identity and exact location of the sites surveyed comes to seem less compelling as a spectacle than the environments they arise out of and merge back into: a mesh of roads, bridleways, paths and watercourses, each of which proceeds, if not aimlessly, then with little immediate recollection of where it had once been headed. A lengthy shot of a beige and dark green patchwork quilt of fields corrugated by ploughing reminded me of the irregular hatchings in Paul Klee’s notebooks. These were his attempt to explain what it might mean to speak of the freedom of the ‘active’ line in art. ‘The primordial movement, the agent,’ Klee wrote, ‘is a point that sets itself in motion (genesis of form).’ Thus the active line comes into being. ‘It goes out for a walk, so to speak, aimlessly.’ The camera may appear to survey a terrain. But there is nothing to stop the viewer’s eye going out for a walk along the tracks laid down by the countless overlapping material histories embedded within it.
Klee also imagined a different kind of active line: one that is always direct, always in a hurry, determined to get where it’s going to in next to no time at all. This line thinks of itself as a delivery system pure and simple. Its sole purpose is to connect one predetermined point on the map to another by eliding as much as possible of the passage through or across whatever lies between them. ‘More like a series of appointments,’ Klee adds, ‘than a walk.’ Understood as a reconnaissance flight, Shadow Sites I could be said to amount to a sequence of appointments made on someone else’s behalf. In its companion piece, Shadow Sites II (2011), time and space collapse as those appointments are unerringly kept. A series of high-resolution aerial photographs taken from a light plane dissolve one into another in a long continuous zoom down towards a variety of buildings and other structures, some ruined, others in daily use. The point of view is now that of the operator of a drone or missile locked onto its target, as the dissolves take us from one appointment to another with Schwarzkopfian relish. Still, hurry isn’t the whole picture. One or two of the ‘targets’ turn out to be random configurations of terrain, each a knot in a scatter of routes.
Both kinds of line are in evidence in Al-Ani’s ambitious new moving image work, Timelines, at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne (until 22 May). The method is again a filmed aerial journey: in this case, over the surface of an artefact rather than a terrain. The artefact is an intricately engraved brass tray of Iraqi origin in the metalwork collection at the V&A. The tray is said to depict events which took place on Armistice Day 1918, in the town of al-Hindiyyah. A dense throng of British soldiers and Iraqi civilians, all shown in stylised profile, fills every available inch of space. Genre scenes populate its outer circumference: passengers on a bus, water drawn from a well, bewildered livestock led to market. Threaded through these scenes is an unapologetic parade of state-of-the-art military hardware: artillery, tanks, troop carriers. This could all be a celebration, a victory parade. The more senior among the notably lantern-jawed officers on the scene seem confident in their ability to govern by the jut of a cigar or pipe rather than by martial law. And yet there is unrest – or more – in the air. A group of refugees crosses a bridge over the Euphrates, which runs down the centre of the tray. What are they escaping from? Biplanes hover over the river. In one discordant vignette, smoke oozes from the breach of a machine gun firing at an unidentifiable target.
There’s a hint of Bayeux Tapestry about Al-Ani’s installation: a narrow curved screen enfolds the viewer, one event after another, in a saga whose origin fades from view while its outcome remains uncertain. But it’s probably fair to say that Timelines is a work even more determined than its predecessors to provoke as well as to evoke. Unlike them, it relies on the spoken word to supply a good deal of the provocation. As the work’s title confirms, the lines at issue here pass through time as well as across space. A timeline is a line in a hurry: it makes the appointments with past events that cultural memory can’t otherwise be relied on to keep. The cultural memory the film sets in motion is articulated in commentary by Al-Ani’s mother, Ann, who grew up in the UK as the child of Irish immigrants and was later to settle in Iraq during a period of rapid social and political change. The stories she has to tell encompass hope and aspiration as well as failure and aftermath. The appointments Timelines would most like us to keep are with the Iraqi Revolt, which broke out in the fertile plains south of Baghdad in the summer of 1920 and rapidly gained widespread support; and the Irish War of Independence, which escalated that autumn, just as the revolt was petering out.
Some of Ann Al-Ani’s more uncomfortable words accompany and enhance the film’s exploration of the most unsettling incident depicted on the tray: the execution of a man identified as Sadiq Efendi, who had been accused of killing a British army officer. Having conducted a series of low-level passes in the area around the river, the camera now bores abruptly down into and through the eye socket of the figure of the hanged man, as though resolved to hollow out or excavate the circumstances of his demise. And yet that vertiginous zoom in is by no means the only manoeuvre it accomplishes. For in its survey of the events of the Armistice Day parade in al-Hindiyyah it has already begun to feel its way palpably along – rather than across or over – the tracks laid down during the design and manufacture of the tray by an overlapping mesh of material histories. These browsings evoke as only aimlessness can. The film’s final manoeuvre evolves in a few seconds from Bayeux Tapestry to video game as the camera transforms a long sinuous groove in the metal into a valley between mountain ranges. We could be en route to keep a further lethal appointment. Then the camera at last soars up and away, into the clear.
An adjacent gallery at the Towner houses Bringing to Light, an exhibition of paintings, prints and photographs from the gallery’s collection which Al-Ani has chosen for their resonance with the themes of Timelines. The most immediate connection is with Eric Ravilious’s A Young Airman (1933), an exquisite wood engraving of the cruciform shadow cast by a biplane. But the selection also includes works with a political point to make: Picasso’s The Dream and Lie of Franco II (1937), an etching originally intended for reproduction on postcards to support the Republican cause in Spain; and Matthew Miller’s Shadow Theatre (2005), a sculptural installation modelled on the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow, where forty Chechen rebels and 130 hostages died when special forces stormed the building in 2002. The opaque circular forms depicted in Peter Lanyon’s Black Stone (1964), Jennifer Dickson’s In Limbo (1967) and Jem Southam’s Ditchling Beacon (1999) recall a wonderful moment in Shadow Sites I when the mirror of a pond or small reservoir stares darkly up at us out of the arid landscape.
Bringing to Light also includes two earlier works by Al-Ani herself. Excavators (2010) offers close-up video surveillance of a colony of ants building a nest. Black Powder Peninsula (2016) uses helicopter and drone footage to capture the traces of military and industrial activity which scar the surface of the Hoo Peninsula in northern Kent. In this corner of the world, the latent photographic images embedded in the landscape march in lockstep with the pivot to empire in British history: Palmerston Forts around Chatham, already out of date in the 1860s when they were built to defend the dockyard against attack from France; the chemical explosives factory established at Cliffe by Curtis’s and Harvey Ltd in 1898; the Anglo-Persian (then Anglo-Iranian, then British Petroleum) Oil Company’s refinery on the Isle of Grain, operative until the early 1980s. The camera zooms repeatedly out from the grid-like structures which have reconfigured the peninsula into something more like a zone than a terrain. Like the points at which Klee’s line in a hurry comes briefly to rest, each site is not so much a place as a node linked to other nodes in a network by the most direct means possible: supply ship, railway, pipeline. The unyielding predominance of geometrical pattern has reduced the land to a diagram of its exact function. These, evidently, are addresses at which appointments of some consequence might once have been made. The feeling as the camera zooms out is one of rapid getaway, or narrow escape from an impossible situation. Except that even a terrain as instrumentalised as this will go on creating opportunities for aimlessness. We catch sight of the red roof of a car threading its way in a leisurely fashion along the edge of a storage facility. The bead of bright colour lifts the sombre mood. The provocation in Al-Ani’s moving image works lies ultimately in the tension they create between two ways of thinking about what a line is for.