Jonah Bokaer: About An Arabesque
On Viewsigns and symbols
February 13–March 8, 2020
In the exhibition About An Arabesque, choreographer Jonah Bokaer investigates the socio-political underpinnings of the notion of the “arabesque,” a European aesthetic catch-all for a wide swathe of Middle Eastern and North-African decorative gestures. It is also the title of a ballet position. As a dancer of Tunisian origin, Bokaer views it as a unification of visual art and dance and two aspects of his persona. The exhibition is comprised of video clips, prints and sculptural installation: this multi-media approach is expansive, but is it effective in increasing our awareness of the implications of the idea of the arabesque? Is information even the intention of the exhibition, or is it a meditation considering how cultural signifiers can coalesce around misperceptions and shreds of evidence and then be processed through the lens of the artist? The exhibition’s installation is casual, almost studio-like in the exposed brick gallery space signs and symbols. Framed works line the walls, and there is a projection at eye level on the white back wall of the single room, lending some sense of regularity. Interrupting this is a flat-screen monitor resting on the floor in the room’s left-hand corner, surrounded by rectangular plywood fragments; the piece lends the exhibition its title (single channel color video, 2020). Along the bottom of the floor on the right-hand side of the gallery is the same kind of angular, jutting plywood assemblage, Raft Of The Medusa (2020). These two pieces disrupt the typical rectilinear organizational strategy of the gallery; it is hard to tell what the motivation is behind this injection of chaos. Are these three-dimensional expansions of the imagery meant to represent the at-times inscrutable historical accumulation of meanings around a particular sign?
The Western notion of the arabesque is a loose concept: it is based on the curling, fluid vegetal form/gesture that appears frequently in Islamic architecture, design, and art. The idea of arabesque infuses this form into the overall culture, but it functions primarily as a Western/colonial construction. As an idea, it primarily exists in the eye of the beholder—the European eye—based on vague similarities perceived in the aesthetic choices of the beheld—Middle Eastern and North Africans. Bokaer is of Tunisian ancestry, so he acknowledges the pressure that is exerted on Arab culture by the imposition of foreign interpretations. The serigraphs and prints on plywood address the multicultural history of North Africa. Images of Roman ruins in the region refer to outside occupying presences occupying in Aeneas, Anchises, Ascanius (2020), a serigraph created from a photograph of a sculptural fragment depicting an interlude from the Aeneid. The wooden constructions are imprinted with contemporary diagrams of movements by migrants to and from Europe as well as photographs and text. The disparate references and images in the prints coupled with the videos of dance and performance offer a multi-valent definition or interpretation of arabesque, but like the term itself, the concepts have often taken on their own sets of meaning which bear little relation to each other.
As a dancer and choreographer, Bokaer is familiar with the arabesque as a position in traditional ballet: the dancer stands on one leg with the other lifted at a 90 degree angle and the body thrust in the opposing direction from the leg. In his dance and movement practice, Bokaer choreographs with a focus on surroundings and their interpenetrations with movement and bodily self-awareness; this is balanced with an investigation of specific movements and positions. Bokaer and his dancers utilized both traditional balletic gestures as well as motions that allow limbs to balance and swing based on gravity as well as the momentum of the body in motion. His gestures mutate and expand, and his dancers often test each other in series of repeated movements. In the horizontal, split-screen projection, Neither (two channel color video)(2016), dancers interact with a variety of environments on the lower screen, most outdoors, while the upper half presents the same scenario, absent the performers. Sometimes the dancers move across the landscape—often in arabesque and related movements—but they also crouch, sit, or repeat movements. These vignettes are about waiting, fidgeting, and crowd activity as much as dancers interacting with their surroundings. The second video presented, About An Arabesque (single channel color video) (2020), features a female performer who grimaces, smiles and shifts position. She flirts with the viewer, exuding the seduction and exoticism of the “other” that is the equivocal essence of the arabesque. About an Arabesque is an exercise in comprehending concepts as intractable as the “romantic,” “gothic,” or “Romanesque,” and also fraught with questions of the colonial and classicizing view. Its symptoms can be catalogued, but a cohesive definition is much harder to pin down.
Bokaer worked in the studio of Robert Rauschenberg in Captiva during a fellowship with that artist’s foundation in 2019. His prints are Rauschenbergian in their color choice, graininess and obscured imagery. He also had his first career success as a dancer with Merce Cunningham, so there is a strong affinity with the particular postwar avant-garde sensibility of that group of artists. Bokaer’s grapeshot approach to encompassing this difficult theme is thus very much in keeping with that artistic lineage of techniques of free association, combined with the artist’s utilization of the rigors of traditional balletic movement. One enters About An Arabesque with the confidence of a basic textbook definition of what the arabesque is but leaves substantially less secure, entranced by this nebulous concept.