Giving the Palestinians a voice

<em>The Death of Klinghoffer</em> does not go far enough.

Rarely has an operatic work been more controversial, or split audiences so cleanly down political lines, than John Adams's and Alice Goodman's The Death of Klinghoffer. Based on the 1985 hijacking by Palestinians of the Italian cruise ship the Achille Lauro -- and the subsequent murder of 69-year-old disabled American Jew Leon Klinghoffer -- the opera first premiered in 1991 to mixed reviews. Klinghoffer has been branded as "anti-Semitic" and "anti-bourgeois" for its consciously even-handed approach in documenting both the events on board the Achille Lauro and the historical content of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This new performance, co-produced by the English National Opera and the New York Metropolitan Opera, marks the London premier of Adams' sand Goodman's vision. Tom Morris, co-director of War Horse, brings a moody and modern take to the staging, adding further nuance to the work's historical context with the harsh grey lines of the Wall of Separation that encase and imprison the performers on the stage. Adams's soaring melodies, often modulated in polyharmonic tones reminiscent of the Arab love songs played to the captain by one of the hijackers, provide the perfect accompaniment to Goodman's lyrical prose.

The libretto juxtaposes mythological and Shakespearean undertones with colloquial speech as Goodman switches from depicting exiled Palestinians and Jews to the real-life characters of passengers and hijackers. The plot, too, is fluid and almost timeless; flowing from personal memoir to historical re-enactments and back again with no particular chronology. Michaela Martens's evocative performance as Marilyn Klinghoffer was a tender complement to Christopher Magiera's brusque and professional Captain, with a particularly haunting debut by Clare Presland as the Palestinian woman. Arthur Pita's elegant choreography was particularly effective in the "Aria of the Falling Body", artfully rendering the tragedy of Klinghoffer's body being thrown overboard.

Indeed, if this were any other opera, treating any other subject matter, I could not fault it. And yet what I found troubling about this new staging of Klinghoffer was not the opera itself, but the whiff of controversy that continues to cling to it. Alice Goodman, in a recent interview with the NS, conceded that the main reason Klinghoffer has been the focus of such public outcry is that it "looks at everybody as a person", whether that person be victim or murderer. In a 2001 New York Times article, Richard Taruskin criticised Klinghoffer for "romantically idealising criminals" and "indulging" terrorists. It is this that has so polarised opinion: on the one hand we have those (usually from the right) who say it is anti-Semitic and a glorification of terrorism; while on the other we have those (usually from the left) who defend it for giving a voice to the hijackers and placing them within the historical context of the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. But in the two decades since its premier, hardly has the debate gone beyond this simple division.

While I would applaud both Adams and Goodman for their political foresight (not to mention their artistic talents) in attempting to rectify the balance in debating Palestinian and Israeli issues, I would also argue that this work does not go far enough. Yes, there is a Chorus of Exiled Palestinians that is juxtaposed with a Chorus of Exiled Jews; but the Palestinians are portrayed as primitive, angry and destructive, while the Jews are seen peacefully planting trees and building a country. Yes, we are given an insight into the mind of the fictional hijacker Omar, but his dreams of martyrdom and Paradise are an absurd parody of Islamic values, and if anything serve to alienate him from the audience rather than underline his humanity. Ultimately, this production presents a spurious balance between the two sides in this conflict, tapping into contrived and cemented stereotypes of the "Arab terrorist" that do little to contextualise the historical scene or redefine the terms of the debate.

At the time of its premier, Klinghoffer may well have broken ground by daring to show Palestinians as human, in however a diluted form. The fact that over twenty years later we can still regard the attempt to give Palestinians a voice -- beyond that of "terrorists" -- as politically and morally contentious, is troubling in the extreme.

Alexandra Coghlan's essay on classical music and politics appears in the current issue of the New Statesman.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review, an online journal covering arts and culture in the Arab world. She also works as a freelance journalist specialising in the politics of the Middle East.

Getty
Show Hide image

The new Tate Modern building is perfectly designed for the Instagram generation

Almost every three minutes a photograph of The Switch House is uploaded to Instagram tagged with the Tate Modern Switch House location.

It's a Tuesday morning in the Tate Modern Switch House”s “Living Cities” display.  A group of teenage girls charge around the room, phones in hand, paused on the camera screen, hunting down a potential Instagram post or Snapchat story. A young man is capturing shots of Mark Bradford”s 2004 “Los Moscos”,  a violent collage made from the materials found on the floor of his Los Angeles Studio. Ten minutes later the same man remains looking at his screen, observing the images he has taken on his iPhone camera. A group of tourists are posing for a photo on Marwan Rechmaouis”s “Beirut Caoutchouc”.  A young girl tells her Dad “that”s a really good photo that you took”. Kader Attia's “Untitled (Gharrdaia)” is surrounded by lenses of Canon cameras attached to bodies.

You can't miss it. The camera is literally everywhere: in every hand, in every room, in front of every painting.  

Downstairs, in the room “Between Object and Architecture” Yayoi Kusaama”s “The Passing Winter” (2005) seems to be a hotspot for the perfect Instagram post. People crowd around the cube, placing not their heads, but their iPhone cameras through the inviting holes. I too am part of this. Standing just outside the grey tape boundary, I take a picture of myself in the mirrored cube. Add a Clarendon filter, adjust the brightness and contrast, and tap post. By the time I've left the room, three friends have liked it.

But why do we insist of photographing the art around us? And what are the consequences of doing so?  A common criticism of social media is that it discourages us from living “in the moment”. As we constantly view the world from behind a digital screen, the tech-sceptics say, we neglect details of life at that very second. But there are even greater ramifications for the clicking, capturing and photographing of visual art for the sake of your Instagram feed. As you take a picture of Louise Bourgeois  À L”Infini (2008) and adjust the brightness, contrast, structure, warmth and saturation, then apply a filter of your choice:  Gingham, Juno, Crema Sierra, Nashville or Sutro, you become an artist with your own digital palette, transgressing the intentions of Bourgeois in terms of colour, tone and texture. While the intricate effects of Bourgeois's own work may be lost in the snapshot, your Instagram feed gains. It becomes a mini gallery, holding these appropriated and transformed works.

As you pose in the cube mirrors of Robert Morris”s “Untitled” (1965), or next to Andy Warhol”s iconic “Marilyn Diptych” (1962), it becomes clear that the gallery is an ideal space for capturing the art via selfies. If you'd like to convey to your followers just how “cultured” and “artistically engaged” you really are (just look at the Tumblr “Tinder Guys Posing with Art”), this space allows you to promote your own self-image with ease.

I ask the woman beside me viewing (or rather capturing) Lorna Simpson”s “Photo Booth” (2008), exhibited in the “Artist and Society” display of the Boiler House, why it is she is taking images of the work. She tells me she herself is an artist, and so sees this work as inspiration, capturing photos as a record for herself.  Art is photographed as a means of preservation. The content of a gallery is simultaneously static and fleeting. If you come back to the Tate Modern tomorrow, or a week later, chances are Lorna Simpson's “Twenty Questions (A Sampler)” (1986) will not have moved from that same space. You stand and observe the image, take it in, maybe read the detailed text beside it, and then move on to something that catches your eye in the next room.

The camera, however, offers a chance to capture the art forever. Will you ever come back to it? Perhaps not, but the image is stored away among your photos of a summer holiday, preserved as evidence of a piece of work that made you feel something. The camera provides a sense of security. It is a reassurance that you won't forget the image, just yet.

“But also”, the woman goes on to tell me “I think it”s really nice to share images. If I take a photo of this art, I can share it with my friends”. In his Ways of Seeing, John Berger talks of how the camera has changed the way we interact and engage with art. “The camera enables us to see something that isn”t precisely there in front of us”, he states, “allowing appearances to travel across the world in seconds”. I take a picture of a Gerhard Ritcher and Snapchat it to a friend with the caption: “Your fave!” A few seconds later, he opens the image and replies.

Indeed, in the corner of a display in the Boiler House, is a digital screen provided by the Tate that encourages an exchange of images between the gallery space and home. “When do you feel most creative? Post your photo on Instagram using #tatestudio and it may appear here”, it says. Alongside photographs of the studios of Claude Monet and Eva Hesse are square framed, edited images of the work spaces of @paulaclyde, @magpieethel and @rayofmelbourne. Social media, it seems, has become central to the identity of the Tate. Just look at its own Instagram feed, updated daily with times lapse videos and images of the art work in its collection. Access to free Wifi throughout the Tate Modern only epitomises the pertinence of social media to the art gallery experience.

When searching for “Tate Modern Switch House” in the Instagram search engine, you are presented with 194 posts with the hashtag #tatemodernswitchhouse, and a photograph almost every three minutes tagged with the Tate Modern Switch House location. The most popular shots on Instagram, among Louise Bourgeois”s dresses and Marwan Rechmaouis”s immersive floor installation “Beirut Caoutchouc” are images of the concrete twisting staircases of the building and the newly expanded viewing gallery. This landscape of London, offering at various views as you walk around the external of the building, is perhaps one of the most photographed pieces of “art” to exist amongst the gallery space. There is a sense in which the Switch House has been built to be photographed.  And if you don”t bring your camera, you”re missing out.