By Eva Rosenfeld
Raida Adon rejects political categories because they fail to capture the utter strangeness of lived experience.
Displaced: Raida Adon’s Strangeness in the Mildred Lee Gallery at the Rose Museum of Art, 415 South Street, Brandeis University, Waltham, through July 24.
Artist and popular actress Raida Adon’s 33-minute work of video art, Strangeness, anchors her first US solo exhibition. For two decades her videos have been dedicated to exploring the displacement and dispossession that she feels as a multireligious Palestinian woman living in Israel. Like her earlier films, Strangeness explores a collective experience, but this time Adon is also steeped in the sensation of being alone.
The Rose Art Museum describes Strangeness as a document of “displacement and enduring journeys in search of Home.” Ironically, this description presumes the stability of a “home,” while Adon deconstructs this assumption. She breaks the image of a “home” down to its component parts to create scenes of alienation. Despite the grave political subject matter, the film is visually playful; each scene presents an opportunity for new perceptual experiments that are strung together into a trancelike progression, halfway between montage and narrative cinema. Home is depicted, in one scene, as an oversized Adon crouched like Alice in Wonderland inside a miniature replica of her childhood home in the binational city of Acre, Israel. The replica sits in a suitcase, which is itself placed in a larger “home.” In another scene, we see migrants traveling through a forest carrying their furniture. In another, the camera explores a sunny home, stripped of all its furnishings. Yet its displaced inhabitants haunt the domestic space — they sit in its empty rooms clutching their last possessions.
Artists have long made images that interrogate the nature of domestic space, often because they are interested in imagining the links between the inside of our homes and our inner lives. The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard directly connected the structure of the imagination with the architecture of the home, arguing that our most deeply held notions of ourselves bear the marks of the spaces we inhabit. Adon examines the disruption of that blueprint: what happens when the places that serve as our earliest vessels for imagination are seized beyond reclamation? She crafts images that speak viscerally to the ways we inhabit spaces in childhood, such as the vision of a young girl who draws the figure of a man with wild hair on a wall in heavy charcoal. Her characters linger in an emptied out home or drag chairs through the woods. These are attempts to represent the fragmented psychology of “those who become refugees” and “carry all their memories with them, which passes to the next generation in an ongoing cycle.”
This notion of a distorted memory of home explains Adon’s use of miniatures domiciles, which appear in Strangeness as well as in her previous video works. In one scene, Adon lies down among a village of little houses glowing warmly from within. She looks like a Gulliver-esque interloper who has not (and physically cannot) be invited inside. Then the flames that lit the homes set them on fire. Adon assumes a new role: she is the unaffected bystander to a scene of destruction, safely excluded from the fury. For Bachelard, objects in miniature encourage our imaginations to dispense with the rules of everyday life and enter a realm ruled by a deep-seated emotional logic. This scene follows an emotional logic; it reflects Adon’s alienation via a drama that is all the more potent because her giant size is juxtaposed with the small and archetypal. A few other moments in the film have a similar effect, like when Adon waits for a train which turns out to be only a few inches high, or glides into the sea on a boat the size of her shoe.
Adon concentrates on intimate situations, which has led some critics to characterize her concerns as personal rather than political. It’s true that Adon insists her sympathies are not only for Palestinians, but with anyone who feels the pain of “strangeness or not belonging, even if we have a country and a flag,” But critics overemphasize this point, insisting that Adon has to choose: she must either be a Palestinian artist creating out of protest or driven by “universal” moral concerns in service of pluralism and narratives that show multiple points of view. We should turn away from this duality and appreciate the immediacy of her work, her ability to transform unnoticed images from our daily environments into uncanny representations that touch on emotional truths. In this light, she seems to reject political categories because they fail to capture the utter strangeness of lived experience. Adon suggests this idea in a text for her 2014 video Woman Without a Home: “How is our existence manifested? A residence with a roof under which we find refuge or a country in which we are born and live? Is it the language we use that gives us peace of mind or is it our own body that houses our soul? Where at all is that house, or are we doomed to be homeless?”
Eva Rosenfeld is a writer and artist from Michigan based in Cambridge, MA.