Forbidden city

Shut out of Jerusalem, Arab artists have responded cleverly.

Future Movements: Jerusalem
Contemporary Urban Centre, Liverpool

A short film by the French-Moroccan artist Bouchra Khalili makes explicit the smothering restrictions on movement that preoccupy some of the contributors to "Future Movements: Jerusalem", a group exhibition that opened on the first day of the Liverpool Biennial. Mapping Journey 3 is shot in a single take from above, with a static camera, and shows the hand of an unseen man moving across a map of Jerusalem, as he describes how he gets from his home in Ramallah to his girlfriend's home in the suburb of Sheikh Jarrah. The 14km drive should take only 15 minutes, but he is forced into a long and potentially dangerous detour to the west of the Qalandia checkpoint, which controls traffic between Ramallah and Jerusalem, because he doesn't possess a permit to enter the city.

Many of the Palestinian artists who feature in the exhibition do not have permits, either. "Future Movements" is a reprise of a show called "The Other Shadow of the City", which was put on in Jerusalem last year, and it is testament both to the frustrated affection that inspired it and the difficulties inherent in its production that few of them were able to travel the short distance to Jerusalem to see their work in situ.

Some of the artists have attempted to address the nature of the occupation directly. Contingency, by the Palestinians Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou Rahme, is a soundscape based around tapes recorded at Qalandia. You step inside a darkened booth, and find yourself assaulted by a barrage of noise. A printout in red letters on an LED screen conveys the soldiers' shouted commands, which are buried within the rumble of machinery and the whine of feedback: "Open the bag." "We must keep the order." "MOVE BACK!"

Contingency is disorientating and claustrophobic. Other pieces are more oblique. In Wiki City, Shuruq Harb recast the 14 names for Jerusalem listed on Wikipedia in a system of writing created by an Arab calligrapher. Placed side by side, the plates form a sequence of dots and dashes that seems to embody the movement of traffic or people through the streets of a city that artists such as Harb are not allowed to visit.

Yet it is not only the contemporary Arab presence in Jerusalem that is under threat. The British artist Sarah Beddington has contrib­uted a film that explores the erasure of the city's Arab history. An 800-year-old cemetery in West Jerusalem is being demolished to make way for an institution called "The Museum of Tolerance", and Elegy to Mamilla contrasts beautifully composed images of the diggers and workmen shifting the earth with shots of the undisturbed parts.

The global recession has temporarily halted the destruction of Mamilla, but other Arab districts have been destroyed irrevocably - from 1948 to 1967, al-Musrara lay in the no-man's land between the Israeli and Jordanian sections of Jerusalem and it now lies beneath the main road to Tel Aviv. It survives only in the memories of those old enough to recall its past existence, and on 15 April 1988, the Palestinian-American artist Alexandra Handal walked round it with a former resident called Issa Soudah. Two years later, she pieced together her memories of the day, filtering his recollections through her own and creating a fascinating map of the vanished district.

It is striking that Jawad al-Malhi's panoramic image of a suburb of East Jerusalem is the only piece here by a Palestinian that includes images of the separation barrier. Indeed, the Danish artist Jakob Jakobsen writes, in The Ramallah Lecture, a diary of his six-week stay in the West Bank, that Palestinians have grown tired of its presence in representations of their lives. Yet he felt compelled to defy the unofficial ban, as the luridly tinted pictures of Qalandia that illustrate the recording of his diaries make plain.

He justifies his act of disobedience by saying that he wanted to explore the ways in which the images might contribute to "smashing these constructions, concretely and symbolically". An exhibition of this kind could hardly expect to accomplish such a quixotic aim, but it confirms that Jerusalem enjoys a range of existences - real, recovered and imagined - that no authority can control.

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This article first appeared in the 04 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Licence to cut

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide