Edited by Jacob Korczynski
(Art Metropole and Motto Books, 2021)
I’ve always been charmed by the fact that the visible glitches we associate with video and digital media are often referred to as “artifacts” by technicians. The jagged edge of pixels making a JPEG’s smooth gradient become choppy, or a distorted wave of rainbow tones travelling across VHS footage—these disruptive forces that render our media illegible share a name with an object that’s considered precious, something deemed worthy of care and preservation. The final pages of Nour Bishouty’s artist book 1—130 show successive frames of artifact-laden video footage, printed on glossy black paper. As a reader flips through, a man with a dark moustache and a crisp white suit jacket walks through a densely packed crowd. All others turn in his direction, hands are shaken and celebratory smiles exchanged; he is clearly the reason they are all gathered together. The footage is prefaced by two text frames, each introducing the event in Arabic and English—yet the English is too distorted to discern, obscured by technicolor waves of damaged videotape. The man featured is Bishouty’s father, the late Ghassan Bishouty, also an artist and the central subject of 1—130.
Bishouty’s 1—130 emerges from her ongoing research into the extensive archive of Ghassan Bishouty’s artistic practice. Some 130 of Ghassan’s works (mostly paintings and ceramics) populate the interior flaps of the book’s cover in neatly arranged thumbnails, their catalog details forming a dense, textual grid on the back cover. By displacing the content most readily associated with an artist’s monograph—those categorizing structures that produce a coherent body of work—to the exterior frame of 1—130, Bishouty allows for a different portrait of her father to materialize. It’s a portrait that uses the physicality of the bookwork itself to explore the complicated rhythms of remembering, forgetting, and storytelling that exist between generations of a family—particularly one whose trajectories have been punctuated by violence and exile.
1—130 integrates found material from Ghassan’s archive—scanned photographs, hand-written notes, and printed clippings left untranslated in Arabic—with short paragraphs and poetic fragments authored by Bishouty, reflecting on memories of her father or describing his works. Given the larger scale of the book (at 9 1/2 by 12 1/2 inches) and Bishouty’s spare arrangements of material, 1—130 conveys a particular quietness: each page features a singular detail of Ghassan’s life (be it a photograph, note, memory) arranged against the vastness of an otherwise blank page, prompting the reader to consider each fragment without the added context of dates, translations, or sources. Instead, flipping through 1—130 allows the contours of Ghassan’s life to emerge in accumulation, albeit obliquely.
Displaced from Palestine under the 1948 Nakba, his family relocated to Beirut and then ultimately Amman, where he died in 2004. In photographs, he often appears smiling: proudly showing off a wide-mouthed decorative jug in one, or standing next to a fully adorned Christmas tree in another. The aforementioned video footage documents an exhibition of Ghassan’s artwork, but the frames are so tightly focused on the dense crowd of attendees that his work remains unseen. On one page, Bishouty describes a photograph of her father’s drafting table: “Its edges were chipped like my father’s fingertips, and there was always an illuminated magnifying glass clamped to one of its sides, like an injured limb.” Another page includes a transcribed note, presumably from a doctor, describing the healing process of a leg wound, which forms a sudden constellation with two other pages that each read simply: “bullet” and “another bullet.”
As one flips through 1—130, these details begin to reverberate off one another, building a narrative of a relationship between father and daughter that deliberately conceals just as much as it declares. Referencing the organization systems required when sorting through the remains of a life, Bishouty’s work acknowledges that while these processes often intend to create a fuller picture of their chosen subject, they expose the breadth of what remains wholly unknowable. Most notably, 1—130 is punctuated by a series of digital collages produced by Bishouty, where the artist has extracted small details from her father’s paintings and re-arranged them on colored pages of the book. Some feature recognizable fragments of fingers and toes, of plants or grazing sheep, but many are abstracted even further. These collages are striking in part because they signal a form of cross-temporal collaboration between both generations of artists, and because they often emerge from the negative space of their source material. On one page, an abstract shape in cerulean blue is adorned with colored flowers; it looks to be a swath of fabric, folded like the sleeve of a jacket. Its top edge is jagged and uneven, perhaps a remaining outline where hair once cascaded down a shoulder. Aside from the thumbnails tucked away within 1—130’s covers, which are densely arranged and too small to glean significant detail from, Bishouty’s collages are the reader’s most intimate and direct engagements with Ghassan’s works: they appear lush yet fractured, creating new rhythms alongside what they have lost.
To recall the dual meaning of “artifact”: it’s the careful taxonomy of something precious, something that archives a history, or perhaps obscures it. On the first page of 1—130, Bishouty describes how, looking through her father’s material, she re-discovered a drawing she made on the eve of her fourth birthday. Ghassan had gifted her with her first Staedtler pencil and she drew a wonky arrangement of children on a large piece of cardstock. Within Ghassan’s archive, the aged drawing was wrapped in wax paper and carefully labelled: “Nour Bishouty, December 28, 1990.” As the first action described in the book, Ghassan’s diligent archiving of Nour’s childhood drawing foreshadows her own research into his artwork, and beautifully anchors the subsequent pages of 1—130: across generations, these collection practices are entwined; they occur in tandem with one another. Across past and present, homeland and exile, father and daughter—they trace the artifacts of a family.