Woman at Point Zero
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
July 26–October 31, 2016
Against the back wall of the darkened gallery in Sophia Al-Maria’s Black Friday exhibition at the Whitney Museum, a large, vertical screen loomed over a bed of sand, awaiting approach like a shrine. The sand, piled six inches deep, was strewn with phones and a few tablets, each plugged into a snaking wire and chattering its own repeated, programmed scene, some cut from, all in reflection of the main feature on the big screen. (Black Friday was actually two pieces: Black Friday above and The Litany below, which is worth noting only to keep track of commodification; imagining them split is discouraging.) The chopped, shivering memes seem cast off and forgotten by the video above, where a man’s resounding voice preaches the evil of contemporary temples of purchase. A woman and her child, dressed in white, make their way through marble halls in synthetic dusk toward a fluorescent noon that breaks with a climactic bellowing and the arrival of a femme fatale. The camera follows past shuttered shops in the empty mall at a sluggish tilt like swimming, until a woman in black abaya appears; it holds on her strutting ankles, then cuts to overhead shots of her body splayed on the floor, then on the stairs, as though what she had threatened was her own doom. Rather than the simple melodrama of a consumerist allegory, the video is suffused with the normalized fear embodied by a pair of moving walkways that, seen from above, evoke the image of a familiar pair of towers that have yet to fall.
While Black Friday’s three-month run anticipated the November shopping holiday, the middle of that run fell almost precisely on September 11. The video loops and leans toward dream, so things are more associative than causal; but like a dream, the fragments of narrative accumulate meaning. It begins and ends with the moving walkways scrolling against each other, appearing to bend the fixed space, towering above the phones lying in the sand like debris. Yet while the atomized cries glow with a sense of decay, the looming scroll feels ascendant, the magical fixation of flux. Shopping malls have come to resemble airports and vice versa, lubricant hubs where you can watch circulation drive consumption, rather than the reverse; where the commute bleeds into migration; where phones are like undropped anchors, offering the illusion of safe return. If checking in at a place of business has given way to safety checks during a disaster, this is because the two have been entwined since at least the fall of 2001. That is, the way we use our phones is inseparable from commerce and catastrophe. Whether we huddle separately over small screens or side by side before a big one, digital communication bears the weight of desperation, in our anxious, repetitive attempts to prepare for a tragedy that has already happened. Are we getting any closer?
These are the fractures that define Al-Maria’s world. She was at the American University in Cairo in September 2001, and she watched the second plane hit the World Trade Center while standing in a crowd around a television outside a shisha cafe. She records the moment in a late chapter of her memoir The Girl Who Fell to Earth. The book begins with the story of her Bedouin father, who leaves the provinces of Saudi Arabia for Tacoma, Washington, where he meets Sophia’s mother. Much of the rest moves between rural Washington and modernizing Qatar. Al-Maria’s story follows a conventional arc of awakening, with insistent metaphors and mentions of space; but she also refuses to indulge exoticism in either direction, so that the moon and the stars become a ballast, a reference to the sharing of difference.
When writing about the World Trade Center attacks, Al-Maria sticks initially to the unspoken consensus that there is nothing to be said beyond accounting for where you were at the time: “No words I write could even begin to touch the horror of the event, but whether in New York or Cairo, everyone was afraid.”1 But in the aftermath’s compulsory viewing, her vision collects itself: “The frantic loops of conversation and the patter of car commercial/horrific images/insurance ads were the symbolic externalization of all our internal monologues.”2 The moment at the cafe recedes into a chapter that begins with her arrival in Egypt and ends with her moving out of the dorms into a houseboat on the Nile. She skims through the neon welcome of a city both ancient and futuristic, through a plague of “pure-process magenta”3 locusts that descends on the city at the start of September, the attack she suffers that night by a man with his “flappy thing”4 reaching out of his fly, the cops’ dismissal of her complaint, the personal fury that builds across similar experiences toward political rage, the increasing distance from her high school boyfriend, and the navigation of margins and misunderstanding toward something that might feel like home. The American demand to consecrate the suffering of 9/11 is displaced by the uncanny, by longing, by movement and flight and struggle, by a sense of breaking away. At the end of the chapter, she writes, “I could reinvent myself in a room of my own, begin from a blank page, like enjoying the moments before writing in a fresh notebook full of virgin paper.”5
Al-Maria’s first solo show, Virgin with a Memory, took place at Cornerhouse, in Manchester, England, in 2014. In a video on the Cornerhouse website, she refers to the show as a collection of DVD extras for her unmade revenge film Beretta, an homage to Abel Ferrara’s 1981 film Ms. 45. In the Ferrara film, set in New York, a mute young woman working at a fashion agency is raped twice in a matter of minutes by two different men. The first is a mugger who assaults her on her way home from work. The second has broken into her apartment, and she manages to kill him. In shock, she cuts his body into pieces, which she puts in her refrigerator and discards one by one throughout the city. The film ends at a Halloween party, where she has dressed up as a nun and brought along a gun, a .45. She more or less indiscriminately shoots the men at the party, until a coworker picks up a cake knife and stabs her in the back. As she turns and falls, she looks the other woman in the eyes and says, “Sister.” Al-Maria’s Beretta remains unmade in part because it came too near the intellectual property line of Ms. 45, though not for Ferrara. His words, “Just let the chick make the film, man,” appear on the cover of Virgin with a Memory: The Exhibition Tie-In (2014). Black Friday’s big moment, when an “apocalyptic sky trumpet”6 announces the woman in black, is a glimpse of what could have been, or what still might be.
The Exhibition Tie-In offers another. Fragments of the novelized Beretta script alternate with diary entries about Al-Maria trying to make the film; both are interspersed with chat transcripts, scans of script, pixelated photos of interiors and obstructed faces, and an image file name that stretches across three pages. Her foreword calls the book “a small act of de-mystification.”7 It is also a kind of portrait of creative animus as Medea: as Al-Maria’s frustrations mount, her heroine sinks deeper in violence. The fantasy of retribution stands in for justice when justice seems unobtainable. Beretta is set in Cairo, and Al-Maria is told more than once that the film’s ideas, and by extension the filmmaker’s, are not Egyptian enough. An American-born Egyptian man at a gallery opening tells her she doesn’t know about violence, referring presumptuously to her lack of participation in Egypt’s recent uprising. On an earlier page is a scan of the cover of Bidoun magazine’s twenty-fifth issue, which shed its gloss and glue and color for a black-and-white, stapled, and disordered attempt to meet the gaze of revolution. The cover features Al-Maria’s words recounting a dream of flying over Cairo.
Black Friday was shot by drone in an empty, opulent shopping mall in Doha. It bobs, floats, dives, and ascends through the liquid air of dreaming. It dodges men on buffing machines, stalks the woman and her son in white, fixes on the heels of the woman in black, and hovers over her contorted body. While the gaze may not be the eyes of war, neither is it neutral. The minimal narrative suggests a mannequin, shaped and painted as a woman, springing to life then returning to its inanimate state. The woman in white walks with her son, then the son is gone and another woman, or perhaps the same one, appears in the color of mourning. The preacher’s voice haunting us through the video belongs to the actor Sam Neill, the hero of Jurassic Park (1993). We are in the object world of man’s willing seduction, but the desired calamity turns to fluid. The femme fatale, that modern siren, appears dramatically but briefly, to walk in circles.
The boy and the men on buffers are not the focus, and the male suffering that would be depicted in Beretta is absent—unless you can imagine suffering without direct representation. Sisters, Al-Maria’s contribution to the 2015 New Museum Triennial, also featured a lack of male figures. Looping, chopped, pixelated videos pulled from the web, all or almost all of women dancing in Muslim dress, were projected on three fiberglass screens hung like staggered, raised curtains around a wall-mounted cellphone. On the phone played a video of a girl singing. She leaned back in a bed against a wall in a room lit dimly by sunlight, her face cloaked in a digital veil. Her song—all longing and echo—is cut short, a matter of seconds; the horizon or seduction of sound pulled you in to push you away. With each repetition, the music receded, a teasing denial of possession. Set against the Triennial’s discord, where the artworks appeared to interrupt each other, Sisters reflected the allure of impossible refuge. Black Friday worked in reverse, insisting on refuge as enveloping doom. In Black Friday too, the sound worked against the space, or seemed to supplant the spatial horizon of installation with a temporal fluidity that escaped the confines of the gallery, which felt less like a room than a pause in a cold wind’s passing, so that the sand appeared not piled on the floor but in the midst of being removed.
At the end, or what may not be the end at all, of Black Friday, when we’re looking again at the walkways, we hear Al-Maria’s voice. She recounts riding one in Doha past a group of American soldiers in civilian clothes. They are obviously soldiers, despite the attempt to blend in, and she is wearing a veil. She recognizes one of them as a guy she knew in school in the United States. He doesn’t recognize her, and she imagines she fits the description of a target in his training. The distance between their passing cannot be bridged. She calls it a bad dream. We don’t need pictures of Abu Ghraib to think this dream might be American, but hearing Al-Maria shifts the video’s tone, pulls it away from sleep. The walkways are walkways, the phones in the sand are not fallen stars, the murmur of shopping returns. Al-Maria speaks in flat, exhausted bitterness. There is no rise to seduction, only recognition of its muting. Her veil may be both disguise and display, just as his casual dress can be as conspicuous as any uniform. Seeing is obstructed no less by your own habit as by another’s apparent costume.
In The Girl Who Fell to Earth, the chapter that follows Al-Maria’s reflections on September 11 is about losing her virginity. Her Saudi boyfriend has gone to school in Boston, and she meets an American student in Cairo. She comes to that realization which, once arrived at, always seems late: “The concept of falling in love more than once was liberating.”8 What happens happens, but there is no melodrama over choosing this or that boy. With a light touch, she attends tenderly to each moment, while pulling loose the threads that would bind the occasion to a predestined meaning.
The positive side of that flux, of what appears an unceasing expenditure, is its power of renewal, where out of the exhausted depths unwinds a tenacious desire. She holds us in that moment in Black Friday, above the walkway as she looks to the warrior for the boy she might have known. No penetrating glances occur, no exchange of understanding. What makes this holding apart greater than the power of alienation is how the refused collision renounces the image of fate. A lingering approach suffuses the collected moments with a semblance of chance. The dream may have yet to begin.
Kyle Proehl is an editor at Art Handler. Baad, a work of collaborative fiction, was published last year by Les Presses Editables.
- Sophia Al-Maria, The Girl Who Fell to Earth (New York: Harper Perennial, 2012), 225↵
- Ibid, 217.↵
- Ibid, 219.↵
- Ibid, 228–29.↵
- Sophia Al-Maria, Virgin With a Memory: The Exhibition Tie-In (Manchester, England: Cornerhouse, 2014), 9.↵
- Al-Maria, The Girl Who Fell to Earth, 237.↵