It is our final night in Maribor. We are gathered in a cobbled alleyway, opening night drinks for the smallest, newest gallery in the city – a 20cm gap in a wall covered in Perspex. It is the last in a series of tiny interventions scattered across the city by the group Balkan Kavkaz, delicate love letters to a place we have all slightly fallen for. We stand in small groups spread along the street; mulled wine and schnapps, warm bodies in the cool air, a route of passage transformed into place of rest. I feel myself similarly suspended, comfortably still in these newly familiar streets and yet aware that tomorrow morning we will all be moving on.
This week has been made of such oppositions; rest and movement, persistence and escape, things that change and things that stay the same. All these elements are definitely present in the story Deborah Pearson tells for us, sat behind a desk in the auditorium of a local high school, grainy monochrome footage of the 20th century flickering on the giant screen behind her like a memory too huge or sad to be forgotten.
Deborah talks as eloquently as anyone I know about time; about when it moves and when it doesn’t. In her first show Like You Were Before she presents the audience with a home movie filmed on her final day in Canada before leaving for the UK indefinitely. This caught moment, replayed and relived, becomes a kind of sanctuary; a harbour against change, time and distance, a place of stillness in a world that won’t stop moving. In her next piece The Future Show the very opposite is true. The Future Show is an act of breathless prediction, an accelerating leap into her imagined future that counterintuitively enables her to freeze time, offering us a portrait of herself at the precise moment of the show’s performance.
In Maribor she is neither flying through time or frozen in a moment, but rather suspended somewhere between the two. History History History begins as an exhausting gallop through a past that is at once epic and intimate; through revolutions and counterrevolutions, migrations and returns, marriages and breakups, plots, usurpations, victories and failures. A clattering sequence of things happening; this following that following this following that. And yet at the heart of all this restless movement is another film; another moment captured in pictures, albeit a far older one this time.
Deborah is haunted by a man in the film, a figure caught in time, appearing to move but actually still, a whisper of him trapped in each individual frame. He stares out at us from history, a brief look shared with someone on a passing train, before he and it are gone again. Who is this spectre, caught between continents, trapped between the old world and the new? He is a man preserved in ice, belonging to neither the past or the present. Stuck in the fractures history leaves behind.
In her talk the following day Rima Najdi is falling into similar cracks. She too sits behind a desk, film playing on the screen behind her. Between her and these images there is a different kind of distance, one defined more by place than time; by the space between the Arab world and its orientalist representation in Western popular culture. An Arab living in New York and Berlin, Rima finds herself stuck in this gap, constrained by the racist assumptions of her classmate and surrounded by crude renderings of exotic women in veils and scarfs; an endless parade of belly dancers and terrorists.
But Rima refuses to remain stuck, to allow her experience to be rendered as abject. She creates an interactive performance that invites small groups of audience members to dress her up in a cartoonish array of Arabic costume pieces she provides for them and to pose her however they wish. In the ridiculousness of this invitation, and the audience’s stuttering, awkward attempts at dressing her, she renders absurdly visible the way in which such orientalist fantasies are constructed. Perhaps the most joyous part of the project, however, is when Rima takes these newly imagined Arab outfits home with her to Lebanon, to be shared with her whole family. We see grinning family portraits of everyone dressed up in Rima’s new costumes. What began as a source of oppression becomes part of her apparatus of survival; this gap in which she was once stuck transformed into a bridge to a distant home.
In the cold street we are still drinking. Saying our reluctant goodbyes. Grateful to have found some shelter from the storm, even if only temporarily.