How do we see from here? Puppies Puppies presents Lena Youkhana’s found video works at Queer Thoughts

, 30 March 2017

Lena Youkhana’s current exhibition, curated by Puppies Puppies and running at New York’s Queer Thoughts from March 12 to April 9, consists of three videos taken from user upload websites. Two of them, ‘An apartment for sale next to Hotel Beirut and Hurrya Mall on Baghdad Street Cairo’ (2016) and ‘A house in Dora for Sale, Baghdad’ (2016) appear to be made on cell phones by estate agents to sell homes. The third video, displayed in a separate room behind the main space, is infrared night vision footage of an Iraqi man raping a donkey. Because of the grainy quality of the green and black film it is only possible to decipher what is happening in the video via the racist and abusive narration of the cameraman, who the viewer presumes must be an American service man. What view of the ‘Middle East’ does America have, what can we see from here?

Lena Youkhana, A house in Dora for Sale, Baghdad (2016). Installation view. Courtesy the artist, Puppies Puppies + Queer Thoughts, New York.

In an email from the Iraqi-born, Chicago-based artist, Youkhana says she finds “sincerity and specificity to be intrinsic characteristics of a lot of found-videos.”  Media archaeology is the theoretical term that describes a depth-model of analysis of new and digital media; it is a materialist theoretical framework that finds clues to meaning in the historic relationships of different technologies. It is hard to know where the access point to sincerity and specificity would be in the exhibition. This is not to say that Youkhana’s work is insincere, or lacks commitment to the unique contexts she borrows footage from, but that the meaning of the show runs on a chain of deferrals that produces a sense of estrangement. As Youkhana described in her email, “For me, it is about how you navigate through the space/collection of medias given.”

Puppies Puppies’ involvement in the exhibition is clearly billed in the press release and in the title of the exhibition, so the show is read under the banner of the better-known artist. Youkhana confirmed that he selected the three videos and the framing of the show was largely up to him. In this guise, Puppies Puppies appears as an interventionist curator; while simultaneously, across town, he is participating in the Whitney Biennale as an outsider provocateur, where he is conducting a daily performance dressed as the Statue of Liberty. The Chicago-based artists’ curatorial strategy doubles the appropriative approach of Youkhana multiplying authorship and diversifying potentials for meaning in an associative constellation. In these curatorial and artistic practices, the displacement and re-insertion of signs and objects create critical disturbances in meaning.  

Lena Youkhana. Installation view. Courtesy the artist, Puppies Puppies + Queer Thoughts, New York.

So far, so post-modern, but it would be doing the show a disservice to leave its interpretation at that. The stakes of the matter and meaning of documentary material are currently high in the United States of America. Youkhana and Puppies Puppies’ show is not an exhibition about the Trump administration, or about the warmongering of Obama and Bush that preceded him, but it does bring forward the issues of access and visibility to a region that has been the fulcrum of US foreign policy for over two decades. In the video of the donkey ‘ass, an ass, and the ass’ (2014) the chain of abuse, that passes from the soldier-narrator, to the bestiality of the rapist, to the animal, is deeply uncomfortable and painfully familiar, recalling the Western media’s incessant reproduction of images of suffering and humiliation from the Iraq conflict. The epizeuxis — close repetition of words — in the title of the work is a hint at a reckoning with these linear chains of subjugation.

However, there is no clear political ‘correction’ in the show. Both the videos and the curation circumnavigates didacticism, beginning and ending with the oblique videos of real estate. Furnished but unpopulated, the properties are homes not just houses. Youkhana has mentioned that in Arabic the plural of the word ‘home’ means to go round and circles, stating, “That’s perhaps what led to look at and collect these house tour videos in the first place.” We need technology to see from a distance, but proximity does not necessarily clarify vision. In Youkhana’s work, sight and the act of looking are a form of intervention in meaning-making, separating the question from what we see from the question of what we know.**

Lena Youkhana’s solo exhibition, curated by Puppies Puppies, is on at New York’s Queer Thoughts, running March 12 to April 9, 2017.