Art in America
MARCH 2014 FIRST LOOK
BY WILLIAM S. SMITH
Jumana Manna: A Sketch of Manners (Alfred Roch’s Last Masquerade), 2013, video, 12 minutes; coscripted with Norman M. Klein. Courtesy CRG Gallery, New York.
IN JUMANA MANNA’S VIDEOS, even the sacred city of Jerusalem can be a site of profane pleasure. The Palestinian artist’s Blessed Blessed Oblivion (2010), which she made while a graduate student at CalArts, follows a group of East Jerusalem Arab hooligans as they cruise between the gym, the garage and the barbershop. Reciting poetry and vulgar jokes, they groom and primp, lavishing equal attention on their bodies and their cars. Set to a soundtrack of Arabic pop music, Blessed Blessed Oblivion pays homage to Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963). But unlike Anger’s leather-clad bikers, who live and die on nameless California highways, the men in Manna’s video navigate an urban center racked by geopolitical tension. Their petty dramas are dwarfed by the world-historical clash that surrounds them, as Jerusalem’s version of thug life implicitly unfolds on a global stage.
Locating pockets of exuberance, eroticism and poetry within zones of seemingly intractable conflict is a hallmark of Manna’s practice. Indulgence becomes a kind of political refuge in A Sketch of Manners (Alfred Roch’s Last Masquerade), 2013, which re-creates a decadent 1942 fete thrown by a wealthy Palestinian businessman. Set at the height of World War II and in the waning days of British Mandatory Palestine, the video depicts languid elites haphazardly dressed in carnival attire. The masqueraders drift through a palatial Jerusalem residence laughing and drinking, grasping at bits of life and freedom even as, a narrator reminds us, “the world commits suicide.”
Manna often appears in her videos in roles that blur the line between participant and observer, actress and anthropolo- gist. Raised in Jerusalem and educated in Oslo and Los Angeles, Manna has a biography that mirrors the recent world history examined in her video The Goodness Regime (2013). Starting with the political theater surrounding the 1993 Oslo Accords, a cast of children reenacts major turning points in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as scenes from Norwegian history. With sly humor, the video deconstructs the national myths that bolster the Scandinavian country’s image as a peacemaker.
Manna’s videos address macro-level political narratives but retain an intimate sense of physical experience. Blessed Blessed Oblivion is a catalogue of sensations: razor blades scrape away facial hair while soft brushes spread gooey soap across car doors. Manna’s parallel sculptural practice builds on a tradition of what Lucy Lippard once dubbed “eccentric abstraction,” in which vaguely anthropomorphic objects are instilled with an erotic or violent charge. Manna describes her sculptures as compressed analogues to her narrative work; For Those Who Like The Smell of Burning Tires (2009), on view recently at New York’s CRG Gallery, is a web of mangled aluminum flag poles that suggests an explosive counterpoint to her videos’ cool humor.
CURRENTLY ON VIEW A solo exhibition at the Sculpture Center, New York, through May 12.