The Churning of the Waters
Recent Works by Bashir Makhoul
Since 1990, Bashir Makhoul has been making his farewells to painting. Early work brought Western modernism and kufic script together with the blazing colours of the Palestinian flag to evoke slogans of the Intifada. Later paintings explored hard-edge abstraction's links to Islamic decoration, pattern and geometry, constantly referring to the conduct of the world. As Makhoul began experiments in installation, he moved from paint to plastics, creating complex patterns which explored the metaphysics of signs, the way abstract symbols like words or logos can indicate a world beyond themselves.  What medium is more deeply involved in that problem of pointing from here to there, from art to reality, than the photograph? These recent works extend a decade's enquiry into the passionate relation of signs to the real, but now a real in which the intimate is at much in the frame as the great political events that shape them.
What is this blood? Why is it here, among our nice things? Why has it become so beautiful? And if you think, ah, Palestine, ah, Lebanon, where bonds of blood are paid in blood, then stop long enough to ponder how in the West, in the most expensive Big Science project ever undertaken, our scientists are engaged in discovering how blood -- the thick strands of DNA encapsulated in every cell of it -- hands on our heritage from parent to child, coded into the protein factories of the body, fingerprinting every body, our fate written into our genes, biology as destiny.

Biology as ideology. Kinship as something deeper, stickier. This bag of water that is us, with some handful of chemical additives to stop it leaking, and a crystalline lattice of information telling it how to grow, how to behave, how to pass on the information to another generation, as though living were an inadequate reason to live. If inheritance is nature's way of maintaining this bundled thread of code intact through generations, she has made a terrible mistake. The excess of data causes us to remember in fits, to forget wholesale, to slide through the human ecology in mumbles and flashes of inspired neglect, accidental genius. And science is the ritual that we enact as forensics over the tissues of western democracies: the corpseof liberalism, where the excess of my freedom is the criminal termination of yours. Where blood is spilt, we call for the labcoats, the test-tubes, the passive voice of experiments. Converted late to hygiene, the West has taken it to its absurd extreme, and placed its utter faith in those who clean up the mess. The ritual of memory, remembering what, in fury  or absence, we forgot. Science enacts the memory of the tribe, as brutally and as sentimentally as the ritual slaughter of goats.

Blood is for memory. Water is for cleansing. The ritual bath, the bathing in waters of forgetfulness, the mire of the day sloughed off. Fresh, pure: "We have come to cleanse your area of terrorists". The purification that accompanies all ritual assemblies of the whole and pure are the ablutions that wash away the vile and contaminated. And what is dirt but 'matter in the wrong place', and terrorists, but people in the wrong place. Waters to force the unwanted to flow downhill, away, into the vast cleansing tides of the sea, our first home and our last rest, encircling and engulfing, our pollution blessed at last in the slime of the miles-deep, eternally dark ocean bottom. Washed in the blood of the Lamb or the tears of Abraham, to be blessed with that tidal oblivion.

From which both blood ties and the politics of water will drag us back. For while we bless the fluids that annoint and anneal us, they make their own claims of loyalty, brotherhood, clan, gang, and at the same time urge the dragging back into time of memories better left alone, histories rewritten in tears. Meanwhile, the waterways make boundaries, and as the climate changes, drought makes water as precious as oil, and wars will be fought, and new and darker stains in those rivers and lakes will become the brooding clouds of more war. Between memory and forgetting, defilement and cleansing, we must then decipher the scripts that overlay our time in the world, our delicate and fragile skins that need only a smallest fragment of the smallest bomb to leak their contents into the dirt.

But the scripts are opaque. We read them only with difficulty, knowing only that they are writings, and that, as writing, they are the most minimal form of narrative, embracing time, enacting the human transition from the past into the future. There is a code, like the illegible code of DNA the scientists seek to decipher, but a code which is always unmotivated, mirrored and reversed like the notes of Schönberg's twelve-tone row, so that the elements of writing no longer have a hierarchy to guide and shape our reading of them, thrown into a democracy in which the structures of discourse mutate beyond the control of even a hidden logic to become instead pure pattern, pure noise, as the information scientists say, repetition without message, static on a dead channel.

The matter of writing is of constant concern: the matter, the material. What, after all, is it, to write? It is a coded record of an action, thought or place, and its Greek name inhabits all our writings -- photography, telegraphy, cinematography, holography, graphics, graffiti. In writing, we transport the past into the present and the future, even when that future, like Anne Frank's diaries, seems utterly without reality or potential. The script, the wet scribble of DNA or of kinship written in the blood, is a fable, as true and as mythical as any fable. Like the mathematical imaginary of Galilean science, it imputes to nature the structures proper only to the human mind. In just such a way, we write the calendars of our times across one another: the Christian solar calendar, the Muslim  lunar calendar, the Babylonian writing of 60s in our seconds and hours, the daily rhythm of the sunlight and tidal moon, the sidereal year, all interfering  with one another to produce, like the interfence when a patterned jacket clashes with the pattern of pixels in a TV image, the cyrilian curves of distorted information.

Our writings lie in palimpsests across one another, as here in Makhoul's wall  of water and blood. At the root of the coding lies a phrase in the past tense. Reversed, that gives the present: reversed and inverted, does that write us the future, that unimaginable because unimageable place into which we fall with every breathe? The unworded and undoubted future of the final Real, death? Or more simply and more profoundly, that things will go on, although in some form to which we dare not give a name, so brutal and so fragile is our present and the memories of our past?

To emboss these letters onto formalix, a medium mostly used for shopfront signs, is to raise them from the wall like the monumental lettering of tombs and public arts, but it is also to ally them to the ordinary signage of the streets, tacking them to the functional indications that writing has for the lettered city. Only here there is nothing to sell, but a permanent impermanence of the invitation to an impossible literacy, a remembering of things that might inhabit our present and inform our futures.

Here hang the photographs of a woman young and old, blown up from wallet-sized snapshots to wall-sized portraits, bearing on them the inscribed histories of their passage to the gallery, the light line of a crease, the fleck of dust, the inflated grain of the photographic emulsion, physical evidences of their journeying from pre-1948 Palestine and post-1989 Lebanon, through the circuit of the mails, that vast invisible network scratched over the surface of the globe, and via the technological devices of the artist, to this unsettled publicity where the shy, pretty girl, her crucufix guarding her innocence, is interlaced with the portrait of her older, with spectacles, her age her shield, her gaze her vulnerability.

What makes these writing is not just the 'graphy'  of photographic technology, but the repetition, the patterning, that makes the faces pulse beside each other, so that we are no longer aware of whether we are watching the young become old, or the old reveal the youth within. For both are dressed for mourning with the black ribbon that decorates them, a further public sign of private grief, the mark of bereavement that is not only Makhoul's ritual act performed in a generous space, but an implication of the viewer into this loss, the absence marked by every writing, every photograph.

For what in life denoted her presence in death denotes her absence, the loss which every photograph attempts to hide and to heal. Writing, photography, remember only what is lost or passing: it is the price of recording that it points towards the disappearing past, even as it moves, in its making, from the past forver and constantly towards a future which is yet to be revealed, the end of the sentence, the stuggle to postpone the last full stop. There is a kind of trompe-l'oeil in every photograph  which this hang makes apparent, an optical illusion whereby the observer's eyes pulse between the frames of an unmade narrative movie in which every other moment of a life would be recorded. We must reconstruct that life from these bare evidences, as we can reconstruct the familiarity and affection which has carried those images from their dusty origins to us here, now.

Affection, indeed: the greatest of our emotions is that most familiar and least appreciated. The grand gestures of the great romantics prepare us to give attention to the grand, operatic emotions -- passion, despair, hatred, jealousy, lust and madness. But here we celebrate a more profound, more worthy object, the modest, lifelong murmur of good feelings shared. But across that warmth there comes the sense, too, of distance, of physical removal, exile. This art is politicasl in the best sense: that it addresses a common and shared experience, in this case from a space which has been inhabited by that experience in an intense degree. Many, most, perhaps even all of us to some degree, have felt that mix of liberation and regret that comes from leaving home: the refugee experiences the same in the most focused way. Yet it is not the special nature of that sentiment that makes these patterns so engaging, but their commonality, their reach towards shared intimacies, not a confession but an invitation to commune.

In an accelerated world, where light is the medium of communication and communication moves at the speed of light, information decreases as its mass increases. The mathematics of relativity now inhabit the relativism of our communications systems. Nothing is less valuable than yesterday's news. The scoop takes precedence not only over the front pages but over most people's current awareness of current affairs. The system of the news is relativistic: intensity is a product not of space but of time, and the immediate means for us the present, not the near at hand. So the news helps us most as  a system for forgetting, a structural engine for replacing the past with the emergent present.

And yet, yesterday's news persists, not as narrative, but as its own physical traces. Such are the bullet holes that scar the walls of Beirut, the world's lead news story for most of the 1980s, now a provincial backwater from which Western journalists can safely send their accounts of the newly dangerous and newsworthy Iraq. But here are the disconcertingly abstract motifs of holes made in bitter warfare over a decade, removed from both the hstories that made some sense of them, and the buildings where they are anchored in  their territory, the architectural memory of stone and mortar. At this point, the holes become motif, abstracted from the places and times that gave them  birth, themselves a writing engraved not only in their own posterity, but freed of the passions that first brought them to the world, freed to become the tyrranical markers of all wars, all strife, all hatreds.

The bullet wallpaper weaves another pattern, a lazy geometry like the wallpapers that were so popular in the 1970s. There is another slight optical illusion here, of advancing and retreating squares, as if the elements of some gigantic tapestry's warp and woof were magnified onto the photographic plates from which it was printed. In their serial repetition along the rolls and across the repeated patterns of the rolls in situ on the walls, the holes achieve a further kind of abstraction, an optical game, the making of an environment.

Abstraction is not a matter of levels alone. The familiar examples of art history -- how Mondrian moved from a recognisable image of a tree to a line drawing of its branches towards increasingly rectilinear themes dredged from it -- are of levels of abstraction. There is also the question of modes of abstraction: the directions taken in the movement away from the old dream of a total capture of reality. For science, the mode is numerical; for sociology economic or political: a constant search for a purer and more definite reality underlying the phenomena of mere appearance. But here it is that mere appearance that now is abstracted, the grit and dust, the fall of light, from its older histories and geographies into the harsh illumination of the simple thing itself. But even this attention to the meretricious detail obfuscates the appearance of a further, and a necessary, illusion

For we are inside the room, and surrounded by exteriors: the unmistakable cast of sunlight picking out the grain of the plasterwork in a softly blue light where the camera has extracted from the reflection of the sky the characteristic documentary illumination of daylight. Yet the gallery illumination adds to this the yellow of incandescent bulbs or striplights, creating a kind of ambiguous colour tone, warming the earth-tones of the walls, and leaving untouched only the black voids centred in each small panel.  We cannot assemble a single past from these images: only a genral theme, a general thesis, about the persistence of war long after peace breaks out. About the internal as well as external scars it leaves. And about the quality of the internecine which is the property of every war waged on the members of our own speciaes. For now, surrounded by bullet holes, it is like being in a room in which some savage gun battle has peppered every wall, from floor to ceiling, leaving no place to stand that has not been vulnerable to hurtling projectiles.

This is allegory of civil war only where all wars are civil, all battles fought between siblings, all aggression visited on the human , undertaken at the cost of violence to the self. But even this kind platitude evades the mystery that this room encapsulates: that it is possible to look on these remainders of battle as elegant woven hangings, sweetly symmetrical, pleasantly coloured textures. This work takes one of the great put-downs of modern art -- that it is mere wallpaper -- and brings to it the sudden realisation that wallpaper too has its messages, and that the peripheral and almost absent background of daily events has its own experiences to show us. Without background, no foreground, and without background no clarity as to how the foreground is foregrounded -- how we, in this room, are the foreground to that background, the real of that abstraction and the abstraction of that real.

If a wall is backdrop, what of the floor? The unconsidered foundation of our walking and sitting, floors hide themselves unless, marking themselves off to be looked at -- with a mosaic, let's say -- they stop us in our untrammelled and unthinking progress through a room, and establish a territory where it is unsafe, or we would be unhappy, to walk.

Not that this great hexagon of ceramic pieces is a minefield. The danger is not to us but to it , and the unhappiness one you might feel walking across a grave, unhappiness at disrespect and at breaking or damaging what you walk on, like avoiding walking on spring flowers. The sense of not wanting to tread on this floor is exacerbated by the motif of which it is composed: the motif of the eye. What part of us is more vulnerable, what more intimately connected to the moist interior than this public apperture, the one part of the face all cultures recongise as sensual, and none hide.

An eye is the most communicative organ, even more so than the mouth, which lies, but the eyes reveal at the same time as they observe, perpetually and necessarily interwoven in the traffic of gazes, the becoming visible that every child achieves as it realises that its ability to see depends upon its gift of being seen. For to give oneself to sight is also an act of generosity, an act that links us to all who look back into our eyes. No matter how crude the protrait, it is the eyes we seek out, and when embarrassment overcomes us, it is not just the other's gaze we avoid: we try to hide our own tell-tale eyes too.

For in the dark pupil of the eye is already reflected the gaze, the visible presence of the other, already we look back into our own gaze reflected in theirs. Locking gazes is the most practical experimental proof of the implication of each in all, the lack of finite boundaries to the selfish self. And into whose eyes shall we look? Here, craning across the invisible boundary to identify the scattering of images printed onto the blue ceramic retinas, you can make out three faces, three generations of male children, who each have gazed into their son's and father's eyes, a relay chain of looks full of paternal affection, and here a rhizome of looks returned that makes its own random tracery across the field of eyes, gazing steadfastly, blindly, into the upper air.

Leaning into the space of this hexagon of circles triggers a sound loop, a child's voice reciting 'Round and round the garden'. The old rhyme continues, always implying, at its conclusion, the great release of tickling and the laughter that ensues. That these images are of the artist and his son and father is almost redundant. What is at stake is the interlinking across generations of these so personal intimacies: the gazing into one anothers' eyes, the reciting of nursery rhymes, the playing and tickling. It is their very ordinariness that is important. For these eyes are also ceramic circles, laid in a pattern so that the eye  of the observer is inveigled into snaking its way from arc to arc about the floor in circles 'like a teddy bear', as the song says.

For this too is a garden, of fired earth, 'terre cuite', stained with earth dyes but unprotected by reflecting and gaze-resistant glaze. Like blooms, the  pale ochre and pale blue face upwards, turning towards the sun. The sun, then , is the pupil of the sky, its blazing light the reverse of retinal black, its light so intense it darkens the eye that gazes on it too long. Yet these ceramic eyes, with their absorbent surfaces, are open and undamaged by such unblinking staring, and unlike ours, but like the flowers they resemble, perpetually open to the mercy of the sun.

The darkened room. Out of the light, into the other space, where the illumination comes from two screens, video light, which, whatever colours it carries, always bears the electric undertow of blue-white cyan. These eyes that gaze towards each other, time delayed, do not look into each other but into a camera that has recorded them, a camera whose lens is sparkling in their deeps, the mute witness, the silent priest. A camera can be a second self, like a diary, a way of multiplying yourself, like a diary, into the one who talks and the one who listens, the one who performs and the one who watches.

But something very particular is happening, as we watch the slow evolution of a micro-narative in this almost still image. An actor can weep on queue: we see them do it daily. But his eye has its inner life, its involuntary actions, recorded in such close-up that we can observe the full, the microscopic movement of emotion, not in the most obvious ways, but in the widening and tightening of the pupil, the saccadic movements of the retina, the gradual flushing of the veins. Such motions cannot be chosen or willed: they are the quiet voice of the organism as its chemistry and neurobiological determinants communicate their material thought by molecule and electron to the clustere dmillion nerve-ends of the eye. This eye. At this magnification, the personal is unmistakeable: the filigree of radiating lines, the pigments, the patterns of the retina are more individual than fingerprints, and subject more than prints or DNA to the accumulated experience of living, that slowly darkens and knots the infant's symmetrical pattern into the complex weavings of the adult.

To allow the tear to roll into vision would not only tempt us towards a sentimental enjoyment of pity, taking pleasure in an emotion for which we otherwise take no responsibility. A tear is a tear, but the image of a tear is a sign, part of a code of actorly gestures, ritual performances, social indicators. This narrow framing allows us only to see the physiological changes that take place across this acqueous surface as the bloodvessels swell, the convex surface lifts towards us like an estuary in flood, the precious clarity clouds over.

It is an eye that listens. The elements of this body, into whose domain we have entered, are placed in an unfamiliar order. The eyes look towards each other, and they respond to the sound we hear, but a sound that comes from below the floor, tempting us to hear not with our ears but with our feet, the second most sensitive of our several organs of hearing. Speaking Arabic with a Lebanese accent, it is the voice of an old woman -- the woman whose portraits hang beribboned nearby?  -- recorded on a feeble machine whose motor noise can be heard among the crackles of dust which, as much as the voice itself, gives to the recording a sense of its reality, its materiality. This recording has been in places, unlike those clean, pure recordings taped in anacoustic studios where nothing is allowed to arrive at the finished recording that is not the purest artifice of electronic ablutions. We hear not just the voice, but the machinery and the very earth of the place where it was recorded, translated and transferred to this place of exile.

She is speaking to her grandson. She wants to see him, hear his voice, hold him, know that he is well and that his wife and child are well, repetitive and cajolling, her voice a cadence  of descending notes in short and simple phrases, its rhythms patterned across the rhythms of the whirring motor. It is a slow sound: this was never an instantaneous telephone call or broadcast, but a cassette sent through the mails, like the photographs, a physical journey in which the tape has been carried by men and women, boats and trains, from one city to another. You might almost never want to hear it, so much does its simple presence, arriving through the letterbox, carry of meaning and yearning. As the soundtrack leads us from one eye to the other, so that travelling is completed in the internal world of the listener, a world which now we share, not disembodied, but anchored in the strange symbiosis of the human and the machine.

Makhoul's last paintings were made of formalix and vinyl, abstract patterns derived from Islamic decorative arts, applied in specialist plastic colour strips that belied their ostensibly cheap but financially expensive materials. They play games of depth through the clash of pigments, lifting one element apparently in front of its ground, sinking one ground behind the picture plane. In the 1996 video Oilslick, the pattern is of  snippets of time, video portraits of people speaking single words, giving once again an effect of illusion, this time an audiovisual illusion perpetrated on the strength of expectations bot about the speakers and about the artist, or about what art might be or might address. In the current work, we are dealing almost entirely with modes of the photographic, and with the minimal effects of optical tricks at the edges of perception.

But we are also in the presence of the form and themes of a family album. In these strict formal pieces, there breathes a sense of the pattern and the sign that draws our attention not to some extreme of emotional life or sensory experience, but to the ordinary, the common, the shared. We cannot speak here about the price, the toll, the cost, the risk, the investment, the rewards, or any of the monetary words we use to try to comprehend what it is to love another or be loved. This is the language in which sentiment lies down next to brutality. Instead, we are in a place where we can confront and contemplate the necessity of affection and the impossibility of selfishness, and a place linked, through its materials and its themes, with a wier world in which networksof kin and friendship become more tenuous with distance and with time, but are still the webwork of bonds we are unable to break.

In this making public, Makhoul undertakes that rendering of the intimate which is perhaps the most important of political arts: the expression of humanity as communion, polis, community, communication, and the impossibility of severing oneself from another. Blood, water, dust, earth and electricity: we are inhabiting a living body whose codes and signs are now inextricably entwined and interwoven with our own.