Eastern adventure

<strong>Misadventure in the Middle East: travels as tramp, artist and spy</strong>

Henry Hemming <

For hundreds of years, the Middle East has held a fatal allure for romantic young Englishmen. Post Edward Said, however, the Victorian habit of lounging about Cairo or Damascus dressed up as a "Persian wanderer" is no longer quite the thing (though Nick Danziger’s 1987 claim to have crossed Afghanistan "in disguise as an itinerant Muslim" came close).

The young artists Henry Hemming and Al Braithwaite are thoroughly modern travellers. Misadventures, an account of their 2003 mission to "make work" everywhere from Istanbul to Muscat, is shot through with paranoia that they’re slipping into "Orientalism". Unfortunately, their solution is to travel unburdened by the most basic knowledge of their destination. "Linking each modern-day fragment you find to its historical antecedent," Hemming announces, "was too easy."

After the preternaturally tolerant British Council helps them mount an exhibition in Tehran, they take their "paint-feelings" (canvasses painted with closed eyes) to "the most relevant place we can be making art in right now" – post-invasion Baghdad. Though they emerge unscathed, their studenty solipsism is as dubious as any Orientalist adventure.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: Time to break free?