Artist and activist Judy Price tells us about Still, her new exhibition in London, which comments on the occupation of Palestine by Israel
By India Stoughton, The National
April 12, 2017
A square of a delicately marbled substance shines like a slab of ice cream. Above it, a metal shelf starts to descend very slowly with a loud whirring noise. It touches the top of the square and stops. We wait. A crack appears – the metal has not stopped moving at all. It has been pushing inexorably down all the time – and what it is pressing against is not ice cream, but stone.
This opening to White Oil II, the centrepiece of Judy Price’s latest solo exhibition, is compelling and excruciating. Over the course of several minutes, the block of stone slowly crumbles under enormous, sustained pressure. The edges begin to flake away, then chunks break off until all that remains is a pile of rubble. Its job done, the metal weight stops. Slowly, still whirring, it rises upwards and goes off the screen.
As the opening to a film about Palestine, on the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration (the letter written in Britain in 1917 that paved the way for the founding of the state of Israel, the Nakba of 1948 and the continuing occupation of Palestine), it is a sequence heavy with symbolism.
Price has been creating artworks in Palestine for more than 10 years. An activist with Jews for Justice for Palestine, she investigates in her work issues surrounding representation, expectation and occupation.
Her exhibition, Still, which is on show at the Mosaic Rooms in London, brings together two large film installations – White Oil IIand Within This Narrow Strip of Land.
The show opens with a photograph of an olive tree so coated in dust it looks like a ghost, a leather-bound book titled The Type “M” Kite Balloon Handbook, and text on a wall featuring the wording of the Balfour Declaration.
The text shows how, over five drafts, the opening of the original document – “His Majesty’s Government accepts the principle that Palestine should be reconstituted as the national home of the Jewish people” – became: “His Majesty’s Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this project.”
Within This Narrow Strip of Land – a collection of seven short, esoteric films – combines archival film from London’s Imperial War Museum with Price’s own footage. In Assemblage, one of the shorts, men in pith helmets, assisted by locals, launch a huge observation balloon.
“In the early part of the 20th century, there was little representation by Palestinians because they didn’t have access to cameras. So it was always them being represented by the imperial, colonial other,” says Price, who wanted to show how the balloon became a war machine, used to establish the myth of Palestine as an empty land.
Reel is a collection of the ends of rolls of old archival films. They have been inscribed with mysterious symbols by archivists and distorted with black circles where holes have been punched.
“I thought it was a pertinent way of talking about the politics of representation and the overinscribing of this landscape, people and communities,” says Price. “It is trying to make clear to us the deliberate blind spots in recorded history.”
Price’s own footage captures the looming shadows of marching Israelis troops, Palestinian men dancing at a stag party and a long, still sequence on a rooftop, in which a butterfly circles two empty chairs.
Paired with the archival footage, it provokes reflection on the roots and forms of occupation.
The soundtracks to the films overlap and intermingle in the cavernous exhibition space.
“All these pieces are about trying to create a sense of the tensions within the landscape,” says Price. “The sound is really important in the way that it bleeds between the piece, blurring the boundaries of this contested landscape. Sound doesn’t have any borders, so it also registers the idea of the constructed aspect of these borders.”
White Oil II, a double-screen installation, forms the backbone of the exhibition. Price spent three years working on the film – an exploration of Palestinian stone quarrying.
“The West Bank is half the size of Wales and there are over 350 quarries,” she explains. “It is completely decimating the landscape. The proximity to towns and villages means there are lots of health problems due to the dust.
“I was interested in what was happening to the landscape, but it was also a way of talking about the invisible signs of the occupation – 65 per cent of the stone is sold to and expropriated by Israel.
“Under the Geneva Convention, it is illegal to use the raw resources of an occupied territory… the West Bank has become an industrial park for Israel, in the same way parts of Africa are for western Europe. It is the same capitalist, colonial system.”
Price spent time with the quarry workers, owners and security guards, giving them a space to share their stories.
From the flickering of fire at night and a tape fluttering in the breeze to water running over cut stone in the sunlight, her footage renders a bleak subject in a way that is jarringly beautiful.
• Still ran until June 18 at the Mosaic Rooms in London before moving to Ramallah. For more details, visit www.mosaicrooms.org