As a kid, I remember exploring our kitchen’s junk drawer and finding sets of keys which, according to my mom, didn’t go to anything; they were left by the previous owners of our house. And, now, I still have keys to that house, though I no longer live in it. I thought about this when I picked up the takeaway zine from Taysir Batniji’s solo show “Full Bleed” at Lease Agreement. The back cover has a picture of the keys the artist used in Gaza before he left in 2006, and the front cover has a picture of a glass copy of the keys. Keys are heavy memories of places no longer accessible.
Batniji is a multidisciplinary artist whose work finds its power in liminal spaces and loss, but which often sidesteps the literal violence and gruesomeness of war. He was born in Gaza in 1966, and since 1994 has divided his time between France and Palestine. Through his photos, video, and installation, Batniji distills aspects of his own experiences as someone who lives between places, an experience which happens to be complicated and war-torn. This show, brought together by guest curator Liz Park, makes sense in a space like Lease Agreement, a living room-turned-gallery-space in the first floor of Adam Farcus and Allison Yasukawa's home. His work explores personal spaces in which one lives, stays, or waits. The show features a series of smallish color photos of temporary bedrooms and half-lived-in spaces, an old green suitcase filled with white sand, and a video called 'Transit' about the border between Gaza and Egypt in Rafah.
The photo series is called 'Chambres,' and shows the temporary, un-lived-in homes of artists invited to stay at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Mans, France. The prints are hung flush to the wall, without the permanence or presence of a mat and frame, and are almost too easy and too familiar. In one photo, light streams through mismatched, gauzy red curtains that give the room a reddish glow and comforting light. Then you notice the bare wall, a nightstand with nothing but a lamp on it, and a bare blue mattress on the floor with bedding folded up on top of it, to remind you that this space doesn't really belong to anyone—no one has made it a home.
Most of the photos are similar shots of a bed with nice, natural light, bright colors, with empty walls, empty shelves, and empty corners. One of these stands out, which you might not notice until you're on your way out the door: a sign next to a doorway says, "Priere d'inscrire votre nom sur la porte de votre chambre en arrivant et de l'effacer en partant," which means, "When you arrive please write your name on the door of your room and remove it when you leave"—a one liner with the power of an Anne Carson poem.
The green suitcase filled with sand sits in the middle of the front room on the wooden floor. Because it's a small Baltimore rowhouse, you feel like you might bump into it when you're looking at the photos or watching the video, and it becomes a burden and emblem kind of like those useless keys. The sand adds weight but it's also nothing. The suitcase is about traveling, staying somewhere temporarily, and unbelonging.
The sense of transience is strongest in the video piece, 'Transit,' a looped, six-and-a-half minute slideshow of illegal snapshots at checkpoints at the Gaza-Egypt border. These photos add a necessary grit to the pretty but solemn French bedroom photos. With their blurry and grainy quality, the photos in 'Transit' are more like documents or evidence, counterbalancing the rest of the work, which aestheticizes loss and waiting. At the beginning of the video, the pictures show people sitting on the floor or napping on black leather couches in a small, dimly lit room with an antique TV, a metal trash can, and a shopping cart. Each slide change is accompanied by the familiar sound of an old slide projector changing slides, which also sounds like the cocking of a gun. The slides are organized by location and time of day—from inside the facility at night, to shots from the window of a bus of people and their suitcases waiting outside, to outside the facility at night, and then the morning.
Between these changes are many seconds of nothing, just a black screen, as if some of the slides were lost or taken, redacted or forgotten. The empty moments hint at a feeling of waiting and anxiety in such an impersonal space, and worries about safety. Around the last minute of the video shows a clip of a crowd at night —bright lights shines on two men who are saying something to the crowd in front of them, but then the audio cuts out and the video slows down. Heads in the crowd move to watch as the two men in front throw what look like passports into the crowd.
Accompanying titles and explanations of the work in the zine is a selection of eight drawings of scenes at the checkpoint which, according to the curator, were done by memory in response to censorship at these checkpoints. The imagery is similar to that in the video, but with less information and less of a streamlined narrative. Quick lines describe a man running with a backpack in one drawing; in another, two men are fighting. Since Batniji couldn’t get away with taking photos, he drew what he could quickly observe and remember.
Though spare and simple, and at times understated, Batniji explores the psychological effects of a complicated and circuitous decades-long conflict. The work isn't subtle but it's also not aggressive, opening up a larger conversation about loss, while remaining personal and honest. Batniji is clear but not simplistic, illustrating elements of the situation in a way that underscores how the personal is political.