Pillars of Cloud and Fire
Politics and Poetry
Commentary by Lucy Newman Cleeve
In 2004, Francis Alÿs performed a walk in Jerusalem with a leaking can of green paint. The route he followed, also known as ‘the green line,’ was sketched on a map by Moshe Dayan in green wax pencil as part of the armistice agreement following the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, to demarcate land under the control of the new state of Israel. This remained the border until the Six Day War in 1967 after which Israel occupied Palestinian-inhabited territories east of the line.
Filmed documentation of the walk was later shared with commentators from Israel, Palestine, and other countries, who were invited to react spontaneously to the action and the circumstances in which it was performed. The text included at the beginning of the film presents Alÿs’ intervention as an exploration of the axiom that, ‘sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic’.
The Israelites’ long walk through the same territories c.3,500 years earlier can also be understood as a symbolic performance, both political and poetic. God repeatedly tells Moses that ‘the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord’ (Exodus 7:5; 14:14). Walking for forty years in the wilderness can be interpreted as a form of protest through which the geo-political and moral map of the ancient Middle East is redrawn.
This political action also had poetic and spiritual power for those taking part. The story of the Exodus is a psycho-geography in which the journey is as important as the destination. God brought the Israelites out of Egypt and their physical experience and memory of the event was in order that they might know that the Lord is God (Deuteronomy 4:35). They were transformed into a covenant people through their experience of walking in the wilderness.
Commentary by Lucy Newman Cleeve
In 2014, Tacita Dean began an twelve-month residency at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. Whilst there, she became fascinated by the cloud formations she observed in the Californian skies. She was diverted from the body of work she had planned to make, producing instead a series of works of cloud compositions.
The physical support for this image is an old Victorian school slate into which Dean has worked spray chalk, gouache and white charcoal pencil. The original patina of the board is still visible, creating a palimpsest of its former use as an educational tool. Barely perceptible handwritten notes are detectable between the clouds, including the word ‘breath’.
Dean’s awareness of the Californian cloud formations—striking in their difference from those in English skies—was enhanced by her foreignness. When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, they left behind all that was familiar. In the wilderness, they would have been hyper-aware of their natural environment and of the strange and unfamiliar movements in the skies, serving as a reminder of their exile whilst at the same time signifying the presence of God.
Clouds have no respect for borders. In United States property law, the term ‘clouded title’ is used to indicate any unresolved claim on a property that may prevent transfer of ownership. The Israelites were called to trust God for the title to the promised land (Exodus 3:8; 23:31), even though the spies whom Moses sent out to survey Canaan advised that it would be impossible to conquer (Numbers 13:27–33).
Drawings in chalk are vulnerable and easily erased but Dean never allows her blackboard drawings to be preserved with fixative. In this passage, the medium through which God chooses to communicate with the Israelites is correspondingly ephemeral. The Hebrew word for breath is sometimes translated ruach, which also means spirit or wind and connotes an entity that can be felt or experienced but not seen. Through their experience of exile, the Israelites learn dependence on an ineffable God.
Commentary by Lucy Newman Cleeve
When Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt, they were pursued by Pharaoh’s army. Ahead of them, lay the threat of war with the Philistines.
This image is from Regina José Galindo’s video-performance work, La Sombra (The Shadow). The video depicts the artist running endlessly around a field, pursued by a German World War II tank. Our attention is drawn to the anguished expression on Galindo’s face, her slight frame in stark contrast to the over-powering physicality of the encroaching tank.
The video cuts between low-level shots looking back up at Galindo and the tank (allowing viewers to experience the sensation of being hunted) and shots from the perspective of the tank driver looking down the gun (its phallic form suggestive of masculine power and aggression). The camera pans out to expose the distance between Galindo and the tank from a side angle, then cuts to a close-up shot of the artist’s feet, slow and heavy with exhaustion. This is juxtaposed with close-ups of the obdurate progression of the tank’s wheels churning the soil as it shadows its victim. The soundtrack combines the unremitting machinistic growl of the tank with the sound of Galindo’s heavy breathing and occasional anguished cries.
Galindo uses her body to create powerful visual metaphors and symbols for the conditions of the oppressed (Carolin 2011). Her performance draws attention to the fragility of the body in the midst of the current refugee crisis and changing racial politics.
This situation can be compared with the political and social turmoil of the Middle East in the thirteenth century BCE (Exodus 1:12). Moses himself survived the Egyptian genocide of Israelite baby boys. We are reminded that women and children are often the most vulnerable people in conflict zones and migrant situations. The power asymmetries that uphold the systematic persecution of racialized and gendered bodies are global and span history.
Carolin, Clare. 2011. ‘After the Digital We Rematerialise: Distance and Violence in the Work of Regina José Galindo’,Third Text, 25.2: 211–23
Garzón, Sara. 2019. Regina José Galindo: La Sombra (The Shadow), Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, https://museum.cornell.edu/exhibitions/regina-jos%C3%A9-galindo-la-sombra-shadow [accessed 18 June 2021]
Francis Alÿs and Julien Devaux :
The Green Line, Jerusalem, 2004 , Video (colour, sound)
Tacita Dean :
My English breath in foreign clouds, 2016 , Spray chalk, gouache, and charcoal pencil on slate (with scratches, marks, words, symbols, graffiti. The word ‘breath’ is written by the artist)
Regina Galindo :
La sombra (The Shadow), 2017 , Video installation
Commentary by Lucy Newman Cleeve
The three works included in this exhibition, much like the forty years the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness, all explore the relationship between history, time, and place.
Regina José Galindo and Francis Alÿs both draw on the traditions of walking art and performance art, using video to document their actions. Galindo’s work draws attention to contemporary situations of oppression, specifically those affecting women. The Documenta 14 exhibition (which included La Sombra) received substantial state funding from the German Federal Cultural Foundation and the German Federal Foreign Office, yet Germany is one of the world’s largest weapons manufacturers. Galindo’s work accentuates and critiques the source of this money, deriving from an economy complicit in the arms trade and dependent on war. Similarly, the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt emphasized the extent to which the military and economic power of their aggressors was contingent on the oppression of strangers in the land.
Alÿs’s interventions are often situated in places of societal and economic crisis or political impasse and he has identified Jerusalem as the archetypal city of conflict. His performance of The Green Line has a dialectical quality that draws attention to the artificiality and absurdity of borders whilst at the same time reinserting ‘the green line’ (which has had no real political bearing since 1967) into the landscape. Alÿs’s walk translated the original green wax pencil line, drawn on a 1:20,000 scale map, into a 1:1 scale map drawn on the surface of a real city. The original line, 3–4mm wide would have appeared neat and lucid on the map but when scaled up, it equates to a strip of land 60 to 80 metres in width. The wobbly line that spilled from Alÿs’s paint can created a far more accurate map, but one that could only be understood by taking a line for a walk.
Like Alÿs, the Israelites as they walked created a map of the land and used it to make sense of their history and their place in time. It was a collective act of remembrance through which they developed a coherent story about their experiences and about God’s promises and provision. The idea of the journey had been planted in their collective memory years earlier when Joseph extracted a promise from his brothers to carry his bones from Egypt (Genesis 50:25) to bring them out of Egypt and into the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The title of Tacita Dean’s work, My English Breath in Foreign Clouds, is taken from a passage in Shakespeare’s Richard II, where Henry Bolingbroke, later King Henry IV of England, describes his experience of exile. The Bible includes more than fifty references to the resident alien: ‘You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt’ (Exodus 23:9 NRSV). The Hebrew word that is translated here as ‘resident aliens’ is gerim, from the verb gur (to live or reside somewhere). In the Bible, a ger is someone residing outside their own people’s land. In this argument from historical empathy, the Israelites are called to show compassion to strangers, perhaps best understood today as migrants or refugees living in exile.
The risk of erasure is significant in each of the three works: it is found in the ephemeral subject matter and medium of Dean’s drawing; in Alÿs’s green line that risks being obliterated by feet, traffic, and rain; and in Galindo’s fragile figure seemingly on the brink of extermination by the tank. In Dean’s and Alÿs’s works, this fragility draws attention to the absurdity of trying to impose unnatural boundaries or to fix things on a changing world. Dean has said that ‘all the things I am attracted to are just about to disappear’ (Royoux et al. 2006: 17). The slate on which Dean’s drawing is made brings to mind the first set of tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written. Shortly after the commandments were given, the tablets were broken (Exodus 32:19). Some 800 years later, the prophet Jeremiah foretold a new covenant between God and his people: ‘I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people’ (Jeremiah 31:33 NRSV). Along with Jeremiah, these works remind us that—unlike the inscriptions with which we seek to mark the external world—inscriptions created through experience and written on the heart are indelible and cannot be broken or erased.
Dean, Tacita. 2006. ‘Interview 007: Marina Warner in conversation with Tacita Dean’ in Tacita Dean, ed. by Jean-Cristophe Royoux, Marina Warner, and Germaine Greer (London: Phaidon)